You don’t thank musicians for making records because that is weird. That is the psychological failing of a superfan that really needs to devote their life to something less superficial. You don’t thank the checkout person for ringing you up and bagging your groceries. That’s their job. You don’t thank the repair person for putting the new brake pads on and bleeding the brakes so that they actually work. That’s their job. And if you write songs and you sing for a living, your thank you is that people buy your music and maybe, just maybe, elevate the financial status of your life — but that’s it (he said semi-sarcastically).
So we arrive at The Next Day, the David Bowie album that occurred long after there was never supposed to be another David Bowie album, with the last being Reality from ten years ago. On the promotional tour for that record Bowie suffered a heart attack, canceled the rest of the tour, and slipped into his civilian life with wife Iman and child. And by most accounts, he was perfectly happy in his domestic role. He kept the lowest of profiles, did not frequent the spots where you would go to be seen, and thus was able to maintain a level of privacy so many celebrities claim to want — except they’re regularly spotted at the hottest restaurants and clubs in varying degrees of undress. Oh, please don’t look at me. And if you have to, please don’t look at me from my bad side.
The rest has been heavily circulated now. Producer and longtime collaborator Tony Visconti gets a call from Bowie saying, “Hi, how are you. I think I’ll make a record.” The call was probably eight years late, but in interviews even Visconti was stunned it came at all. He and Bowie booked some time and started a process. Now, how this should have gone down (if the history of others is a template) is that Bowie tells Visconti he wants to explore the Cole Porter songbook. He wants to book time with Adele, Rihanna, and maybe Gwen Stefani…could we get Nicki Minaj to drop a couple rhymes in the middle of “Don’t Fence Me In”? Get cameras in the studio and webcast every session, pummel the press with information so that, every day, there is a tidbit about Bowie’s Back! in the media chatterbox. Take a bunch of photos and the youngest-looking one gets tweaked in Photoshop until David looks embalmed, make that the cover, and then pimp that image for all it is worth.
What we get from The Next Day subverts nearly every modern scheme with which to relaunch an individual into the public eye. Rather than an all-star cast of “Featuring” players, he’s surrounded himself with his ably capable and trusted longtime co-workers. He’s made an album that is resolutely a rock album, with guitars almost always front-and-center. His lyrics hint at the human obsession with celebrity, specifically on “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” with “The stars are never sleeping, the dead ones or the living…their jealousy’s spilling down, the stars must stick together, we will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they’ll live forever.”
On “Love Is Lost,” Bowie sings, “Your country’s new, your friends are new, your house and even your eyes are new, your maid is new and your accent, too, but your fear is as old as the world.” The songs move through pop and rock, with a little bit of soul here and there. “If You Can See Me” revisits the bass and drum feel of the Earthling album. “How Does The Grass Grow” wouldn’t be too out of place in a mix with Scary Monsters tracks, and the widescreen theatricality of “Heat” while not being completely of a piece with the Low years certainly is an indication that the same man made both.
The album cover is also a mild perversion. No big, fatuous portraits of self-created glory here. Instead, one of the more iconic covers in his output, for “Heroes” gets literally defaced with a papered-over white square. It concretizes an aspect of a theme throughout the album that Bowie recognizes he has a legacy and maybe he’s hoping that legacy will be as singer and songwriter. The other aspect of the recording seems to be mortality, or more to the point, we will be remembered but will we be remembered for the right reasons? Or maybe that is all just one man’s interpretation, which itself is a form of novelty in the 2010s where everything is exactly what it purports itself to be and the introduction of alternate perceptions, or unintended reactions, or interpretations mean your focus group let you down.
David Bowie could have made any kind of record he wanted to at this point. The hyperventilating superfans would have considered it a lesser work, maybe an abdication of his creative vision and sniffed in dismay, and yet would call his version of “De-Lovely” triumphant. The response to his resurrection would probably have been equal to what we have right now. But Bowie never did things conventionally and, to his everlasting credit, didn’t see a need to start trying that with The Next Day.
So even if it comes off as being the height of weirdness, thank you Mr. Bowie for your decades of work, and for adding another chapter that can rightfully be included with it.
Two things about this video to note: first, the song proper doesn’t begin until nearly 2 minutes in. Two, if you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Tilda Swinton could pass as a young David Bowie,” your reward awaits.