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Just a few months ago, the majority of people believed that David Bowie was at best retired, and at worst, dying. Then came the surprise announcement of ‘The Next Day’, David Bowie’s 24th studio album and his first in a decade, back in January. And after all the fuss, the chatter and the thinkpieces, the album is finally available for the world to hear. One question remains: is it any good?
The short answer is “yes”. We’ll get to the long answer in a moment.
‘The Next Day’ shows Bowie back with a new artistic energy. Following a period lost in the wilderness of the 1980s, the 90s saw Bowie either working with past collaborators (Nile Rodgers, Brian Eno) or awkwardly reinventing himself according to current trends (hard rock, industrial, jungle). The resulting records were far from disgraces, but they weren’t enough to win back his detractors, and until very recently, the prevalent critical attitude insisted that Bowie ran out of things to say with ‘Scary Monsters’ in 1980 (The Wire’s Joseph Stannard passionately argues in defence of Bowie’s latter day efforts). It’s why albums like 2002’s ‘Heathen’ and 2003’s ‘Reality’ are generally ignored today, but it was those albums that first showed Bowie as he is now, a man comfortable knowing that it’s no longer necessary to reinvent himself. ‘The Next Day’ picks up where Bowie left off with ‘Reality’, but whereas that album was released after decades of constant work, this follows a 10 year hiatus – and he seems electrified because of it.
David Bowie – The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
The album kicks off with its thunderous title track, a chorus speaking in the bluntest possible terms: “here I am, not quite dying”. Following this is the sax-led Dirty Boys, a song that’s comfortably unusual rather than deliberately experimental, and then the quite honestly fantastic recent single The Stars (Are Out Tonight). It’s a great opening salvo, and the quality is generally kept up across the record – Valentine’s Day is a seductive track about a school shooter, the brilliant, constantly elevating If You Can See Me Now shows long-time producer Tony Visconti toying with studio effects in a way that sadly doesn’t appear enough across the record, whilst the initial single Where Are We Now? really does keep revealing its intricacies on repeat listens.
The second half of the record is somewhat more muted, and it closes with Heat, a bleak soundscape which channels – not for the first time in his career – Scott Walker’s sublime The Electrician (a song that channelled Bowie’s Warszawa in the first place). And whilst there are the odd clunkers – I’d Rather Be High is an unwelcome hangover from the 90s, while a song like Boss Of Me just sounds corny in 2013 – there are no embarrassments, no major missteps and no faddish experiments (we can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the album is free of Will.I.Am collaborations and limp attempts at a drop). It’s just 14 solid rock songs, performed with searing vitality by a master songwriter.
David Bowie – Where Are We Now?
This is where the long answer comes into it. For a lot of music fans in 2013, “solid rock songs” aren’t necessarily enough. The old cornerstones of alternative musical upbringing – Bowie, Kraftwerk, Eno et al – have given way to masses of 15-year-olds drawing influence from Kanye West to Ariel Pink to DatPiff to video game soundtracks to Lil B to found sounds to Daniel Lopatin to DMZ, often all at once. Does it matter that a 66-year old man has released a new, studio-glossy rock album?
It’s not a question with an easy answer. To be honest, it probably depends on your own appreciation of David Bowie’s back catalogue. ‘The Next Day’ isn’t going to win over any new fans – but why should it? The idea that Bowie should release something that could have the same impact as any of his most critically-acclaimed and musically influential records in 2013 is absurd. But it is a triumphant reminder to the world that this is an artist who isn’t quite dying. His current output will never be relevant to the new generation, but whilst the future may have finally caught up with David Bowie, he certainly hasn’t run out of things to say.