Forty years after "Heroes", we discover the doomed couple wasn’t so doomed after all, those declarations of love weren’t as futile as we thought, and there are indeed heroes to be found.
The Darkest Album of Bowie's Career
With the possible exception of Outside, Bowie’s macabre 1995 conceptual piece about a brutal murder, The Next Day is the darkest album of his career, and indeed some of the strongest moments are the bleakest. “Valentine’s Day” is a haunting piece about the violent fantasies of a potential mass shooter set to a jarringly upbeat ‘60s rock pastiche complete with “sha-la-la-la” background vocals. Bowie narrates from the point of view of someone who is listening to Valentine fantasize about mass murder. The video is particularly brilliant, and simple -- it’s just Bowie miming the song in an empty warehouse, using subtle but powerful imagery, gestures and expressions to amplify the song’s violent theme. Once again Bowie shows himself to be an extraordinarily compelling actor.
It’s hard to hear this song and not think of Adam Lanza, who only a few months prior to The Next Day’s release massacred 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, mowing them down in a matter of seconds with a high-powered rifle. Bowie’s frantic vocal delivery during the final run-through of “it’s in his scrawny hands / it’s in his icy heart / it’s happening today!” leaves the ending ambiguous. We don’t know if the narrator is simply overhearing ghastly daydreaming, or if Valentine is actually about to follow through with his plans. The song ends on the razor’s edge of impending violence, unresolved. That constant state of potential violence is something Americans have come to endure, as the nation is awash with guns and mass shootings are now commonplace.
The album’s dark centerpiece, “How Does the Grass Grow?”, is built on the gruesome imagery of a dead soldier mourning his lost love, left alone to live her life without him as his restless spirit watches over her. The core of the song is a grisly chant based upon an old soldiers’ singalong: “Where do the boys lie? / mud mud mud! / how does the grass grow? / blood blood blood!” It’s a ferocious musical creation with blistering guitar, and an extraordinarily complex vocal and musical arrangement that offers ample testimony to the amount of work and attention to detail that Bowie and his team invested in this project. The drumbeat anchoring the creepy extrapolation from The Shadows’ 1960 single “Apache” -- the demented “ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya!” refrain -- is borrowed from Bowie’s own classic “Ashes to Ashes”. “How Does the Grass Grow?” is a spear through the heart -- brutal, nightmarish, and utterly breathtaking.
The album’s second single, “The Stars (are out tonight)”, delves into the strange symbiotic relationship between pop culture idols and the fans who are driven by adoration for them. Bowie describes the stars, himself included, as caricatures and personas, rather than flesh and blood humans. Bowie, of course, has never been a single persona. He adopts one for each new release, sometimes multiple times on the same album. It’s hard to know where the real Bowie is in there, and he acknowledges this. The song is an unflinching bit of self-awareness, and an unsheathing of the vapid culture of ascribing such importance to frivolity and spectacle. As a recording, it’s a marvel -- a hard driving rocker with a sinuous groove and yet another stunning vocal arrangement. Given that Bowie was largely obscured in the arty video for “Where Are We Now?”, the clip for “The Stars (are out tonight)” was the first long look fans had of him in many years. Bowie proves he’s still able to command the screen like no one else, and Tilda Swinton gives a knockout performance in her high profile guest spot.
“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is every bit as much of a steel-toed kick to the head of someone at their lowest point as is Bob Dylan’s enormously nasty “Like a Rolling Stone” -- it’s an unleashing of schadenfreude so toxic it’s almost shocking. “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is a melodramatic rock ballad along the lines of Bowie classics like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “Drive-in Saturday” with Bowie turning in a dynamic vocal performance that’s as strong as any he’s ever recorded. It’s a truly wicked song, barbed with repudiation and spite. He croons with malicious glee, “Oblivion shall own you / death alone shall love you / I hope you feel so lonely you could die”. The target of his ire is unclear -- perhaps it’s simply another character, or maybe it’s about someone specific. It could even be a lash of self-loathing, exhibiting the impulse that we humans sometimes have that we are undeserving to be loved.
In another sonic flashback, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” fades to black with the same drum pattern that opens Ziggy Stardust’s “Five Years”. Of course, the presence of Tony Visconti, who’s been working with Bowie since his 1969 Space Oddity album, helps tighten that string to his past. Many of his collaborators are also familiar names to Bowie fans, including David Torn, Zachary Alford, Tony Levin, Gerry Leonard, Gail Ann Dorsey, Sterling Campbell, and of course Earl Slick, a guitar virtuoso who has been an integral part of a large portion of Bowie’s catalog.
The threads to the past continue unabated throughout the album. “Dirty Boys” is a savage allegory about doing what one must to survive, even if it means resorting to violence. It’s a dark and gritty song that’s musically and thematically reminiscent of the Diamond Dogs era -- the squonks of sax could be samples taken directly from that album’s master tapes. Much like the dystopian world Halloween Jack inhabits, in “Dirty Boys” it’s every man for himself, kill or be killed. “Love is Lost” is a bleak vision of a young life in ruins. Musically it’s shaped by creepy jolts of guitar and icy keyboards reminiscent of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy period. A skittery remix by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem became the album’s final single, and Bowie recorded a video for the track using images and props from various stages of his career.
“If You Can See Me” is a kinetic rocker featuring an explosive intro vocal by the fantastic Gail Ann Dorsey. Sonically it’s a tense knockout punch of wild percussion and precise instrumentation over which Bowie delivers one of his best vocals on the album. Anybody who thinks you can’t legitimately be a rocker in your 60s needs to amp this song up to full volume immediately. Equally edgy is “(You Will) Set the World on Fire”, in which Bowie inhabits the part of an opportunistic music-industry type who is captivated by a young singer and yearns to ride her talents to fortune. Musically it’s one of the album’s more straightforward tracks, a searing rocker highlighting Earl Slick and his blazing guitar. “I’d Rather Be High” is a psychedelic rocker about a young man who’s been so blighted by his experiences at war in the Middle East that he disconnects from society and spends his time self-medicating and inventing his own reality. It’s a stark portrayal of the human costs of those endless wars that seem to have the world perpetually entangled.
In the menacing “Boss of Me”, Bowie inhabits a man whose seeming beguilement over his small town beauty turns into a nightmare for her as he becomes controlling and her individuality and personality disappear into his vision of what she should be. “Dancing Out in Space” is easily the most upbeat song on The Next Day. It features wonderfully surreal layers of guitar effects performed by David Torn. The song is all about spacey sonic textures and imagery, which of course has been present in Bowie’s music throughout his career, beginning with “Space Oddity” over 45 years ago. The album’s smoldering finalé is “Heat”, the latest in Bowie’s long run of Scott Walker-influenced pieces. His vocal performance is deep and resonant, and the spectral musical accompaniment is strongly reminiscent of the “ambient” pieces on Low and “Heroes”.
It hardly seems possible in this information age that anybody still has the power to surprise, but on the occasion of his 66th birthday, Bowie shocked the world by dropping a new single, video, and announcing his first studio album in a decade. Fans and critics were slack-jawed with awe that such an event could have been kept secret, but through the loyalty of his collaborators Bowie managed it. For years, fans had been speculating with a sense of bubbling unease. Bowie isn’t well. Dying, perhaps. After all, years had passed since he abruptly ended his tour in support of his presumably final album, 2003’s Reality, after a heart scare. Some nice reissues of his classic albums hit the shelves, and he even ventured out for a guest performance with Arcade Fire in 2005, but it was widely assumed that Bowie had finally packed it in. Nobody really expected another album by rock’s greatest innovator. Done with the machinery of the music industry, content to live with his wife and daughter in New York, focusing on his health and doing whatever it is that musical geniuses do when they are no longer on the industry treadmill. Bowie himself was mum. No hint, no word, just a vast silence and endless speculation. He fooled us all -- again.
After the album’s announcement, the music press eagerly printed any description of its content, and the anticipation for its release was enormous. Bowie’s return was greeted gleefully by fans. The Next Day debuted at #1 in the UK, his first chart-topping album there since Black Tie, White Noise two decades earlier. It became Bowie’s highest ever charting album in America, soaring to #2 on the Billboard Top 200, besting his three prior Top 5 albums: Station to Station hit #3 in 1976, Let’s Dance reached #4 in 1983 and Diamond Dogs topped out at #5 in 1975. The Next Day was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, the BRIT for Album of the Year, and the Grammy for Best Rock Album. Lead single “Where Are We Now?” became Bowie’s first Top 10 hit in the UK since “Jump They Say” in 1993. The acclaimed clips for subsequent singles "The Stars (are out tonight)", "Valentine’s Day", "The Next Day", and the James Murphy remix of "Love is Lost" all showed that Bowie’s career-long penchant for tethering his music to striking visuals had not abated.
Knowledge of Bowie’s back catalog is essential to understanding The Next Day, as it’s littered with sonic and lyrical references to moments scattered about his five decades of music. It doesn’t rest on his past glories, though. Yeah, we can harken back to ”Heroes” and view this album as something of a companion from another age, but The Next Day is also current and vital. It’s an album that gets under the skin. It burrows into the skull and penetrates deeper with each listen.
Unfortunately, despite its considerable acclaim upon release, it seems almost to have been forgotten. Bowie’s 2002 epic Heathen, while not quite on par with The Next Day, has suffered a similar fate. Too often critics and writers are afraid to touch the “Holy Grails” of an artist’s prime, and are timid when an artist puts out a work that by all rights should be recognized as among their very best. It’s almost a sacrilege to suggest that a new album could be anywhere on par with Station to Station or Low. Why? Older is not necessarily better.
One might argue that Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane are untouchable, but The Next Day belongs in that same stratosphere of greatness. Acknowledging this does nothing to detract from those classic albums -- it only adds another layer to Bowie’s already peerless legacy.