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David Bowie - The Next Day

Falling in love with David Bowie was odd for me. I was 14, and he had collaborated with my absolute favourite thing in the entire world Placebo. I went down the local record store and bought his double disc Greatest Hits for $30. At the time I was working at Subway twice a week earning $6 an hour.. It was an investment, and slightly risky. Still at the age where I was extremely wary of anything my parents enjoyed, parting with my hard earned resulted in an immediate onset of buyers remorse. I needn't have panicked. It's 2013 and that CD takes pride of place in my Bowie collection, along with 7 other CDs I bought in the months after that initial contact. I fell in love with David Bowie.

For such an enticing artist, that word is the perfect description of Bowie the musician. He crafts with an intelligence, consideration and integrity that is unmatched amongst his peers. The sum of his parts are more than those which draw people to him in the first place. He is a sex symbol, he oozes infinite cool, poise and grace. Yet his music is so elaborate and well crafted he is by far one of the greatest songwriters the world has ever seen. The fact that he has endured at the peak of his profession for such a dizzying number of years is not through luck or gimmick. Here we have a man who's musings on life strike accord with our own, who's imagination is such that we are awestruck when he creates brilliant characters, plots and themes, the likes of which we never even considered possible. Who's observations are so pin point as to suggest a robotic gift, and yet somehow humanly relatable. A gift and a hunger for experimentation, he challenges us as listeners at times (Outside anyone?), but when combined with his talent for music (Heathen) genius sprouts.

The narrative of how The Next Day came about is telling in its mundane nature. In November 2010 Bowie began recording with producer Tony Visconti (enduring Bowie producer) and Gerry Leonard. No fanfare, no trumpets and press conferences. He entrusted all within the project with its secrecy, and on the night of his birthday he released a song and a simple statement, there will be an album in March. The internet understandably exploded, anticipation ran high and magazines started madly scrambling for interviews to attach to their feature articles. There aren't many artists from his era who still can still command such a riotous response.

The reason I say it is telling is because The Next Day is not intended to make any statements, it doesn't exist as a testament to contemporary times nor does it house any revolutionary or even evolutionary content. For someone who has been instrumental in shaping pop music, this record is the perfect outward projection of a man contented and happy. Furthermore, it comes from a 66 year old man who has achieved all he surely set out to. There is no need for this record, but we thank the musical gods he was bitten by the bug again.

It starts quite predictably. The title track is a high energy affair, Gerry Leonard's guitar jangling with an accurate mid 90s throwback sound, with the chorus exploding in to a defiant statement 'Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree, its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me', possibly referring to his less than enviable health over the past decade, as well as his advancing age. Dirty Boys then cuts in, a grizzly 70s groove track that splutters and never really gets going. It sits uncomfortably on the record, skippable. From here though, the single The Stars (Are Out Tonight) explodes. Lyrically quite an odd track, Bowie name checks Brad and Kate as if an outsider, yet lines such as 'They are stars, they're dying for you' reveal a different attitude. 'Their jealousy's spilling down / the stars must stick together', he delves in to a more personal viewpoint, it could even be called a plea or a statement about his own relationship with fame, and how only those within the fishbowl can understand what each other is going through. Either way it's a great track, backed by some brilliant energy and effortless rhythm.

His relationship with his past is not addressed as often as expected, especially given such a provocative album cover (Heroes, one of his greatest triumphs, with the face cut out). In fact the record is certainly not autobiographical in nature. He explicitly states this distancing from personal reflection on If You Can See Me, and only briefly, claiming he has 'a fear of rear windows'. We don't get too many more moments of reflection. Rarely does Bowie delve too deeply in to his personal life either, but on the brilliant ballad Where Are We Now? we are treated to an emotive and even desperate sounding man evaluating and generally questioning an existence. The way he sets the chorus up through his fractured description of memory builds a tension that is released beautifully as he questions, pleadingly, 'where are we now?' over and over. It culminates in a resolution that reads like a checklist for a contented older life, as long as there is sun, rain, fire, you and me. It's simplicity is its strength.

Bowie has always keenly searched for influence and inspiration in his writing. Tony Visconti said that he was reading quite a lot of material on war during the recording period, and it has resulted in the best track on the record, I'd Rather Be High. A description of the mentality of a soldier engulfed in a conflict, it's appeal lies not only in the soaring rhythm guitar backing that recalls his brilliant Reality, but Bowie's delivery, capturing a mood you'd imagine was quite common during the time, 'I'd rather be dead / Or out of my head / Than training these guns of those men in the sand / I'd rather be high'. Again, it is his simplicity that adds weight to his statements, it makes the situation so much more relatable for those of us who couldn't be more removed from it. That lovely highly picked riff entices too, uplifting, creating an atmosphere not of desperation but a dreamy optimism, a soldier imagining a more desirable life and experience.

Sonically, the record is much less dynamic than his previous release Reality, which was quite stunning. Only occasionally does The Next Day achieve it's predecessors insanely high energy and power rock smashability. Boss Of Me and How Does The Grass Grow prove that he still has the energy and desire to create dynamic sounds. There is no phoning it in on a Bowie album, and these tracks impress by proving that even standard album cuts still recieve his full attention and effort. (You Will) Set The World On Fire releases a passion and confidence. It is unclear who he is referring to, it could be any number of individuals or acquaintances, but rather than a wizened old man delivering an endorsement it is an impassioned urging, 'Kennedy would kill for the lines that you’ve written'.

We do get moments of weakness and cold, emotionless truths though. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is a track tinged with brutal honesty. Describing the impact another's mental illness, most likely depression, has had on his own psyche, Bowie delivers lines such as 'You stole their trust, their moon, their sun.' and ' I can see you as a corpse / Hanging from a beam'. It culminates in an almost murderous intent, 'I hear you moaning in your room. / Oh, see If I care. / Oh please, please, make it soon', a level of coldness not seen since the line from Oh! You Pretty Things about his first born child, 'let me make it plain, you gotta make way for the homo superior'. I don't think Bowie is intentionally being cold hearted here, and that is the brilliance of the track. He is being honest. He is observing someone drag down those around him via their mental health issues, and it's more a statement of defiance that he will not allow himself to be dragged in to that quagmire. The fact that he pleads for this persons suicide proves he cannot help but be caught up, his own happiness unduly affected. The drum-line beat and the eerily uplifting backing vocals, as well as the rising strings serve to enhance the emotion and dramatism of the situation. It's relatable, yet rarely verbalised.

7.5/10. The second half of the record far outshines the first. There are some less than dynamic songs that, whilst not disasters by any means, are forgettable in the long run. There is enough Bowie brilliance to keep this in rotation for many months to come. I've written too long already but I haven't mentioned Dancing Out In Space, a lovely upbeat psychadelic induced groove that sees Bowie at his most carefree. Another example of the gems to be found on the record. As I said earlier, it isn't revolutionary or even evolutionary, it is just good music. Bowie is timeless, his most recent albums always seem to sit comfortably within the contemporary landscape without adhering to any rules or trends. The same is true of The Next Day.
Best Tracks: Where Are We Now?, I'd Rather Be High, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die

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