The Predictably Unpredictable Resurrection of David Bowie
The Next Day makes for a fascinating, expectations-defying comeback.
Hearing an album for the first time is an experience of incremental revelation, note by note. But repeated listens can smooth over the surprising moments of that initial encounter, and it's easy to forget what was once the exciting foreignness of a work. The snags in the fabric of David Bowie's best art, though, do not disappear over time; they become more fascinating. The Next Day, his first new album in 10 years, is a powerful reminder of just how deftly David Bowie crafts the strange and the profane. Dissonance becomes its own form of harmony, and ugliness beauty.
The Next Day, his 24th studio album, is a robust encore for Bowie, whose sudden return to the music world has had the dramatic proportions of a messianic resurrection. Following the 2003 release of Reality, Bowie suffered a heart attack and gradually withdrew from public view. Most thought he had retired from his half-century-long career for good. But the creative itch seems to have returned, and Bowie began secret recording sessions for The Next Day about two years ago ("He just said, 'I feel like writing again,'" recalled Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer, in a Rolling Stone interview). On his 66th birthday this past January, Bowie's website announced the forthcoming release of The Next Day and posted the video for its lead single, "Where Are We Now?" The viewer is treated to a brief glimpse of the musician as he gazes imposingly upon what looks like an artist's studio, filled with the clutter of creativity. What has he built for us?
The dreamy and ruminative "Where Are We Now?" is unlike the album's predominant style: rock charged with a chest-beating aggression that sometimes tamps down into a rusty, gravelly cool. While the album, as is typical of Bowie, avoids confessionalism and fashions personalities other than himself—a soldier tired of war, a medieval man whipped through the streets (reportedly based on Bowie's perusal of English history books)—the artist feels more present than ever. Bowie makes a bold swipe in the urgent, first track, where his leathery voice—despite having lost some of its whiplash agility with age—breaks out into high-pitched shouts or curls into vicious growls. "Listen!" he demands, like a stern schoolteacher.
Bowie has addressed aging before, on his previous records, but The Next Day summons death with a newfound directness. The imagery is visceral ("How does the grass grow? / Blood blood blood / Where do the boys lie? / Mud mud mud"), the language stark ("I can see you as a corpse / Hanging from a beam"), and the threats unrestrained ("I will slaughter your kind"). But age still hasn't equipped him to answer questions that would have been at home in a 19th-century Russian novel: "Where are we now?" he muses, and in the smoky closing track, "I tell myself / I don't know who I am." But stars, that perennial theme in Bowie's work (and in his most famous incarnation, the alien rocker Ziggy Stardust), hover over the dark lyrical landscape. They offer escape and mystery. The artist who turns his gaze skyward sees possibilities that are not so earthbound and so weighted by death. "I gaze in defeat / At the stars in the night," he sings, "The light in my life burnt away / There will be no tomorrow." The man who fell to earth aches to return.
But there is another escape valve: art. The formal risks taken by The Next Day fall in line with Bowie's long history of reinvention and provocation. The album is full of moments in which the next millisecond is nearly impossible to predict, leaving the listener helpless to the vagaries of the music. These precise moments can be difficult to recall from memory; their peculiarity seems to guard the music against disposability. The album's remarkable centerpiece, "If You Can See Me," trips over itself in its frenetic headlong race; it is a struggle to keep up. The key of "Dancing Out in Space" repeatedly modulates with no pivot chord, like an on-off switch flicked up and down, and the song ends in a key different from what it began with. The introductory passage of "How Does the Grass Grow?" sets up the rest of the song in no recognizable way, and a later section sounds as though it has been lifted from a different song and stitched in with surgical care. Even the burst of guitar that kicks off the album can sound like a mistake.
The abrupt announcement of the album after a decade-long silence has the effect of focusing attention on Bowie's legacy (responses in the media have tended toward retrospection), while at the same time providing a point of departure from this same legacy (The Next Day will always be "that" album, the gateway to a new era, and not just part of a series). Bowie openly plays with this balance. The music videos for "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" and "Where Are We Now?" pay homage, respectively, to his coke-addled Thin White Duke persona and to his fabled years of creative ferment in Berlin. But this is not straightforward nostalgia. In the first video, Bowie and Tilda Swinton (another famously androgynous artist) play an elderly couple, the one wearing a pert yellow cardigan and the other doing indoor aerobic exercises. "We have a nice life," they murmur in the grocery store. Later, Bowie bangs his fists against the wall to ask the younger version of himself—sexual, reckless, creative—to please quiet down so that he and his wife can watch TV. Has age dampened rebellion? Does maturity weaken creativity?
Bowie seems to stiff-arm these doubts with the cover art for The Next Day. The designer, Jonathan Barnbrook, vandalizes the cover of his 1977 album Heroes, one of the most sacred images in the Bowie archive: It shows the 30-year-old artist as saint, hand lifted in vague worship and eyes fixed in transcendental thought. The Next Day superimposes a white square and its name, in generic font, onto the original image and crosses out the album title. It looks like a joke, and it is objectively ugly, all the more because it is offensively bland—anti-Bowie, in another context. But here, the self-awareness cuts through the banality.
Bowie is not precious about his past. His legacy is not invulnerable to the subversive manipulations of his art. He will violate, even destroy, his past incarnations in pursuit of a way forward. It's a sign of his faith in creative renewal. The costume changes, the personas, and the musical transformations over Bowie's long career are less interesting than the philosophy that has underpinned them. His irreverence comes from a place of reverence—for music, for mystery, for one's inner life, that unknowable territory that can only be mapped with the inexact brushstrokes of art. Like us, Bowie is of the world where clocks tick and the body grows sicker, but his art has made it possible for him to lay claim to "the next day, and the next, and another day."