Friday, March 15, 2013

A Contemporary Classic: David Bowie's The Next Day

Not too many years ago David Bowie was the artist to watch. His dynamic musical career continually offered listeners something different at almost every turn. Not content to just release “yet another record,” Bowie always challenged his audience. We never knew what to expect from album to album, each as unique as the last. Every fan eagerly awaited his next move and then, after a world tour called Reality, he decided to call it quits in 2004. Afterwards, he made the occasional surprise appearance with the band Arcade Fire, or turned up at some fashion show. But the fans were still watching, just not necessarily expecting a new album any time soon.

All that changed on January 8th, 2013, Bowie’s 66th birthday with the surprise release of a new single called “Where Are We Now?” a moody ballad that walks us nostalgically through the streets of Berlin, circa 1977. To me it sounded like “Thursday’s Child” from the album, hours (1999). But with the release of the single and an album to follow, Bowie was clearly back in the music business once again. Foregoing any auto-tuning, Bowie’s vocal on “Where Are We Now?" is a little raw. He sounds older and I respect the fact that he’s not hiding behind the mask of Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke. This is Bowie in 2013, after some health issues, quietly revealing him in the first of many songs written over the last couple of years.

While the first single didn’t make me jump up with excitement, I was curious to hear more hoping for David Bowie to again pose a challenge to my ears. The second single called “The Stars (are out tonight),” released February 25th, certainly stirred my interest even though it, too, sounded too musically “familiar.” What was Bowie up to? Apparently the artist who once made the music world stop and pay attention decades ago was back with a new set of songs. And they leap past the recent singles. The Next Day (ISO / Columbia) features 14 tracks that are unexpectedly fresh and accessible. It’s a record that rocks very hard in some places ("Dirty Boys," "Boss of Me") with contrasting ballads ("Heat," "Where Are We Now?"). It’s also an album that indirectly harkens back to his entire catalogue. For me, repeated listening garnered moments from Ziggy Stardust, Station-to-Station, Lodger, Scary Monsters, Let's Dance and Heroes, the latter of which is used as the cover of the new album blocked by a large white box over his pose. (A subversive cover according to artist Jonathan Barnbrook.) I would associate those musical coincidences to Bowie’s evolving sense of continuity than to any intentional rehash. In assessing his discography, Bowie’s older songs certainly invoke the era in which they were recorded. The same can also be said for The Next Day produced by long-time associate Tony Visconti.

Tony Visconti & David Bowie

It’s clearly a David Bowie record from start to finish where he creates a variation on a theme (each track segues from one to the next). In fact, the lyric sheet is one page with no breaks between the printed songs like one continuous ode. Consequently, The Next Day could be considered a holistic work rather than a collection of songs. Nevertheless the album has a modern sound with plenty of layers of real instruments featuring such stalwart musicians as Earl Slick, David Toms and Tony Levin. String arrangements also abound the disc. Bowie’s lyrics shift from obscure to the solipsistic on this album; mostly written from an observer’s point-of-view. I particularly like “[You Will] Set the World on Fire” a hard-driving song about the Sixties songwriters of Greenwich Village. Bowie names Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs with a nod to Dylan as “Bobby.” It’s a nostalgic tribute to some his favourite songwriters from that era that did “set the world on fire.”

Bowie does reveal something of himself on “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” a mid-tempo power ballad with just enough soul to sound earnest. This is followed by the very dark and mysterious “Heat,” a sad lament for lost identity. As Bowie sings, “My father ran the prison," that song could easily be associated with Heathen from 2002, a darker record that followed the events of 9/11. But these songs continually have an uncanny resemblance to some of Bowie’s previous work. Overall, The Next Day is a rewarding listen. It’s Bowie’s contemporary classic, as it were. Much like his past recordings, it’s also an album that’s received a lot of hype, as music magazines and fan sites pump up the volume. (Q Magazine is particularly gaga in the February issue.) But perhaps Bowie has lived up to the excitement with this release. The Next Day is thoughtful, entertaining and it kicks: a clear signal that the ageing rock star can still challenge his audience effectively.

- John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Winds Orchestra.

No comments:

Post a Comment