Since “Heathen” Bowie had released “Reality” in 2003 (another I don’t currently own in the popular vinyl format), had a heart attack, retired from live performance and was living the life of a happily married man in New York City with his wife and daughter. To all appearances he had quietly “retired”.
Then one morning in January 2013, ten years since we’d heard a peep from him musically, he released a new single and there was news of a new album. The greatest Rock star of our lifetimes had recorded a new album, in the heart of New York City and NOBODY KNEW !!! (remind me again all you internet era pop singers WHO leaked your new album online ???).
The album was recorded under a cloak of secrecy. Musicians, studios, studio staff were told to keep schtum and asked to sign Non Disclosure Agreements. The first studio booked leaked the news to a photographer and the booking was immediately cancelled (way to go guys !). Those involved were people Bowie had worked with before and he trusted, Tony Visconti, drummers Sterling Campbell and Zachary Alford, guitarists Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick.
The first anybody else heard was the release of “Where Are We Now”. Its video was released to the world at 5am GMT on Tuesday 8th January 2013, Bowie’s 66th birthday, via his website. There was also news that you could buy the track as a download and it would be followed by a new album. The media world went crazy, after 10 years Bowie was back. News programmes gave him the kind of coverage usually reserved for Royal or Presidential visits or births or weddings, or deaths. He did no promotion for the single, he didn’t have to.
“Where Are We Now” is beautiful, sung in a very fragile manner by an obviously older Bowie. He appears in the video for the most part as the face on the head of a doll and when he finally appears in the video in full, leaning against a wall wearing a t-shirt bearing the legend “…song of Norway” (the title of the film ex-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale scored a part in that caused her to leave him and inspire the song “Letter To Hermione” in the late 60’s trivia fans) it’s a shock to see this older man. On the surface the song is a reflection of his time in Berlin in the late 70’s. But it feels like more, a lament to something lost, something to lose. After the initial surprise of a new release it feels like exactly the sort of music an older David Bowie should be making, haunting, sedate and I’m sure the word ethereal got chucked about a lot in contemporary reviews. But it was a strange choice as a single as it’s not really representative of the whole album.
As an album “The Next Day” is a quite uptempo, if doom laden, affair. The lyrics are dark and allude to death, violence, oppressive tyrants and carnage. Apart from maybe a couple of songs there’s nothing else as maudlin or downtempo as “Where Are We Now”. Other singles taken from the album were “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, title track “The Next Day”, the superb “Valentine’s Day” which has the feel of a sequel to “Absolute Beginners” with darker subject matter and “Love Is Lost”. Side 1 (“The Next Day” was issued in a number of different formats, the one we’re dealing with here is the 2xLP, 17 track DeLuxe Edition) is positively rollicking. The title track, which would have sat easily on “Low” or “Heroes”, is followed by the sleaze of “Dirty Boys” who could well have been inhabitants of Poachers Hill and LoveMe Avenue, the pop thrill of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “Love Is Lost” reportedly Bowie’s favourite on the album and a contender for its title. They leave you in no doubt Bowie is back with a lot to say.
After “Where Are We Now ?” Side 2 gives us more pop wonder with “Valentine’s Day”, seemingly, a look inside the mind of a high school mass shooter, and then one of my favourites on the whole record “If You Can See Me”. It was originally at the dead centre of the initial 14 track release and harks back to the lyrical themes of “1. Outside”, sacrifice, serial killing and an old favourite, vengeful gods (see “Saviour Machine”). Side 2 comes to a close with the floaty “I’d Rather Be High” sung from the point of view of a young soldier at the battle front (a subject previously approached in “Running Gun Blues”).
I’m not going to step-by-step you through every track, the second half of the album includes highlights like “The Boss Of Me” and “(You Will) Set the World On Fire”, if you are unfamiliar with it then I urge you to have a listen. If Bowie had just issued the first 8 tracks as an album after 10 years (asleep) it would have been more than we ever expected and a great return. The fact that he put together (in this case) a 17 track album which was followed by “The Next Day Extra EP” which had a further 5 new songs (according to Tony Visconti there is more, another 7 “songs”, that didn’t get finished) points to the creative fountain that had poured out of him over the 2 years it took to record “The Next Day”.
Even after the albums release Bowie kept quiet. He did no interviews leaving Visconti and the musicians involved to talk to the press about “The Next Day”. The closest he came to speaking about the record was responding to an e-mail request from author Rick Moody for a list of words to help explain the themes of the album, a thesaurus to guide you through the album if you like. Moody says he asked in hope, never really expecting a response. Bowie replied and supplied a list of 42 words by e-mail with no further explanation. You can see the list at https://www.bowiebible.com/albums/the-next-day/2/.
There was a running joke with Bowie since the release of “Black Tie White Noise” in 1993 that journalists would describe each subsequent album as “his best since “Scary Monsters””. To me that was “Earthling” but “The Next Day” was definitely the best since “Earthling” and stands amongst his very best.
If You Can See Me - https://youtu.be/hPsn5Y0Np8c