No sound or word in 10 years and speculations of retirement due to health issues didn’t exactly give the impression that a new Bowie album was on its way. The recording sessions were kept in great secrecy, so when “Where Are We Now?” appeared out of nowhere, it naturally created a huge stir. The combination of the song’s video, lyrics and the thematic revisit to his incredibly influential and celebrated Berlin-era, suggested a nostalgic self-reflecting album dealing with the inevitable course of life. This speculation was subsequently reinforced by the cover-art; a white post-it almost erasing one of rock history’s most iconic album covers. As it turned out, “When Are We Now’s” unsettling nostalgic melancholia is hardly representative of the album. What we get instead is Bowie’s most relevant record in over quarter of a century, with the most consistent songwriting since Scary Monster’s.
When a legendary artist returns after a long period of hiatus, there’s always the eminent danger of being trapped in a different era with museum-worthy production and sound engineering. By the time most rock act reaches their third or fourth decade, they become more outdated than most dinosaurs. This is almost never the case with The Next Day. At this point of his career, nobody expects him to be leading innovation or even reinventing himself. The truth is that ever since the mid 80’s, Bowie started following trends rather than leading them, but he’s done so without becoming irrelevant. During the 90’s he gave himself room for experimenting with everything from industrial rock to drum ‘n bass, keeping him in-touch with a younger generation. Reality and the preceding 00-albums, suggested that he might have found a respectable late-career renaissance, delivering masterfully crafted songs like the “TVC15”-like “New Killer Star”. Then came his unfortunate backstage collapse, followed by a decade of silence.
Although The Next Day is full of past sonical references to most parts of his career, it most certainly is a dignifying record from a 66-years old rock legend. Long-time producer Tony Visconti (who changed drum engineering for ever on Low) argued that The Next Day is a sibling to 1979’s Lodger and while this to some extend is observable in the excellent “If You Could See Me” and “Where Does the Grass Grow”, it’s a record that essentially digs deeper into Bowie’s catalogue. Most of The Next Day plays with the emotions recalled by 1977’s masterpiece Heroes, most audible on the title track and on the bonus tracks. But let’s be clear, it doesn’t mean that it’s on-par with Heroes or any of the Berlin classics in terms of quality. Then again, what is? However, what The Next Day has is emotionally charged songwriting and carefully crafted melodies, unmatched by his latest 10 or so albums.
While the title might suggest otherwise, The Next Day is at times a dystrophic affair, dealing with violence, aging and death. Bowie paints a troubled world, matching or even surpassing the bleakest moods of his career. The lyrics are at times met with an equally distressing ambiance, like on the eerie album-closer “Heat” and on the psych-pop ballad “Valentine’s Day”, one of the most gorgeous songs on the album. But most of the times the sonical palette feels rather up-tempo and energetic, mostly evident on the funky rock outbreaks of “Dirty Boys” and “(You Will) Set The World On Fire”.
The production style is very clean and neat, leaving little room for Bowie’s characteristic experimentations, possibly the only relevant criticism worth stating. This is however a valid point, since some of the Bowie’s trademark creativity gets lost in the making. There’s no “TVC15”, “Heroes” or “Sound And Vision”, but then again nobody expect it either. If this is the end of the line of one of rock history’s most remarkable careers or just the beginning of a new bright spark is too early to tell, but whatever the outcome; The Next Day will quite possibly live on its own merits and be remembered as one of the most unexpected and stunning comebacks from any artist, who essentially has nothing left to prove.