Saturday, November 23, 2013

David Bowie: The Next Day (2013)



The long absence of a luminary is something that tends to deserve the respect of the rock & roll audience. As much as we can commend Ringo Starr for even showing up for his recording dates, what observer doesn't prefer the career path of the man or woman of few words, who pops back upon the radar only when s/he has something to contribute? Of course, public figures laying low inevitably create death rumors, health rumors, retirement rumors, you name it. David Bowie hasn't played a show since 2003, has only made sporadic public appearances since then, but suddenly with barely any lead time for the thinkpiece brigade to start speculating, there was The Next Day, recorded in secret and in utter routine as though not a day had passed since the LP its cover coyly references. Bowie was prolific for three full decades and more, even if everyone from planet to shining planet acknowledges that the fire underneath him during the '70s was never to be repeated. Whether you cottoned to Let's Dance and all thereafter or not, The Next Day comes across as a major shock. Not merely a respectable return to form, it's one of the best records in Bowie's catalog -- the hiatus has done wonders.

What's so remarkable about it? Well, it's the voice, first of all. Not exactly youthful but by no means a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen growl, it retains much of the old yelpy and freaky registers alike. Secondly and perhaps most crucially, the writing: it's top-caliber whether you consider this as a new record by some new guy (no new guy would be this bold, adventurous, or fearlessly individualistic out of the gate) or a proper addition to the Bowie library, requiring no veteran's-rights apology in either case. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" is anthemic night-drive perfection down to every oooooh, "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" the playful doo wop we never knew to expect, "How Does the Grass Grow?" a tremendous creation out of messy melody and restless procession of sonic and musical ideas. Thirdly, the performances, arrangement, production. It's unmistakably Bowie, unmistakably Tony Visconti, but also new: complex and detailed, synthy and organic, its hopelessness and chaos so well organized. "Art rock" (remember when that was the phrase?) is back in good hands out of nowhere. "Your maid is new, and your accent too / but your fears are as old as the world," goes "Love Is Lost."

Maybe the point of all this is that so much less has changed than we think, but an even cursory listen to the maximized sound of these songs indicates that they will age with infinitely more grace than many modern records, many of Bowie's own records from the '80s and onward -- that's sonics, really, playful and tricky but never falling down a synthetic ProTools rabbit hole, never burying itself in the gimmicks of meaningless guest spots and bones thrown to some label executive's idea of modern love. As it must always in Bowie's body of work, paranoia wins out. Enthusiastic paranoia, dramatized and played with precision and natural depth, all filtered through the unerring sensibilities of a giant who remains such, disappearance and floundering or no. It was clear by the time the first single, "Where Are We Now," showed up like a Stevie Wonder ballroom dance imbued with brutal cyncism. It's clear on "Valentine's Day," a power pop power riffage marathon about murder. It's the '60s again, or the '70s, and not, thankyouverymuch, because it sounds like 'em.

The Next Day is lengthy -- after ten full years, there's a fair bit of ground to cover -- but after roaring out of the gate with the dirty ass rock & roll of the title cut and the filthy, horny "Dirty Boys," it never really falters, retaining its pace and curious sense of disorientation all the way to the arid, terrifying "Heat," this record's variation on Talking Heads' "The Overload," the kind of audacious '80s experiment that owed everything to Bowie. Everything cycles around, of course, and now Bowie is just another musician saying his piece, taking cues from others and trying to further the envelope a little just like everyone... except that most 66 year-olds don't even know where the envelope is, much less do they have any idea how or why they should push it. Which is not to discount or defame them, just to point out that by Bowie's determination to issue a strong record he cares deeply about, he's ahead of the game once again. We missed his voice in this modern era so much it would have been OK if the record was merely decent. Instead he's given us something that holds its own against several albums that altered the course of rock music. It's a different time but still, we can't get enough of that doomsday song.

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