“As long as there’s me, as long as there’s you…”
On January 8th 2013, David Bowie’s 66th birthday, he dropped a bomb on an unsuspecting public: a new single ; with a new album, The Next Day, to follow in March; then, we got a second video just before February’s end; and finally, ten days before the album’s release, an iTunes stream. Following nearly a decade of semi-retirement (or was it misdirection?), the release of Where Are We Now? was a PR masterstroke that provoked an astonished outpouring of love and excitement among starving acolytes. Nobody knew it was coming – even The Outside Organisation, Bowie’s long-time PR company, didn’t know until Christmas 2012. In the cold light of day, he did nothing except make a record and keep it a secret. He did this in our online era, where everyone is over-sharing, stealing music is commonplace, the music industry is transforming, against its will, and most public figures can’t buy a pint of milk without media training. In the process, he made what could have been a drip-drip publicity campaign of teasing and snippets and buzz that would have cost millions completely obsolete. There was a rush to explain how on earth this had happened. Sony’s president, Rob Stringer, was so peeved with the perception that he might not have known about the existence of an album his own label was releasing that he insisted on a correction to a Guardian piece that had dared to claim he found out at the same time as the PR agency. He knew in October, he snorted, desperate to appear to be two extra months inside the loop. He didn’t know earlier because Sony obviously didn’t fund the recording – and if record labels aren’t paying for that old staple, what do they even do now? He is oblivious, seemingly, to his own irrelevance – the joke of being so unimportant to an artist comically lost on him.
As I sat, with The Next Day’s iTunes preview before me, I felt like I’d been given a 14-course Michelin-starred meal all at once and was expected to eat every last morsel. Reviewers got a couple of hours in a darkened room with this album. What a task to demand of them: to write defining reviews for serious newspapers , magazines and websites with only a couple of plays under the belt, the first of which is really just reverberation from the shock of the existence of the album in the first place. What’s the point of such secrecy anyway – to prevent leaks? The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing because the album started streaming online 10 days before the release date and can now be easily found, online, for free. The music industry have given up trying to sell music at all but PR companies can’t let go of their tiny measure of control. How pointless. But then, half way through my second play, I was driven to write something too, and it felt possible. Perhaps that’s the lesson of these past two months – everything is possible.
We will each have our own unique relationship with The Next Day. There’ll be teenagers coming to him anew, with this album being the first one they’ll have bought (or stolen). What must it feel like to be at the beginning of such a journey? They have untold riches ahead. But whether you’re a kid or Bowie’s age, you’ll have your own personal connection to this album. I can only talk about my own. My first play was rushed, as I was heading out of the house, and I barely heard anything, I couldn’t take it in. Later that same day, I closed the door and the curtains, turned the light off, put on my headphones and pressed play. As the album was nearing its end, about half way through How Does the Grass Grow? I realised that tears were rolling down my face. Why that song in particular I have no idea. It was just too much, perhaps, and it all got concentrated into that one moment. I’ve lost so much in the last year, and while I have never written about it, never felt the desire to write down how I feel, and have felt, I found myself crumbling to a moment of loss, of my own sadness.
Since I lost my mum my heart has hurt every single day. She would always ask me when Bowie was going to make his comeback, and I’d tell her it didn’t look likely at all. And no matter what anyone says now, it fucking didn’t. In a millennium, I could never have told my mum that I thought he was secretly working on an album. I had no clue, none of us did. So she will never know this joy, she will never hear this record. She was the first person I would have called on that breathless day, January 8th. She loved him and would have been so happy about this unexpected turn of events. She would have watched the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) a dozen times. That I never got, and will never get, to tell her has caused a sadness that will never leave me. And yet, this record does what it’s supposed to do, at its very heart – it makes me happy.
During the creation of any album, there are a thousand creative decisions to be taken. Whether you make an album that takes two weeks or two years, it’s all about the roads you choose to take. I couldn’t possibly trust Bowie more than I already do to make the right choices and, expectedly, every element of this album has been carefully picked to work and fit together. Every guitar break (the three-pronged attack of Gerry Leonard, David Torn and Earl Slick works wonderfully throughout), bass line, horn and string part, and every insistent, powerful, drum beat is filled with conviction; every lyric and thought is crafted with precision and passionate expression, and every charismatic vocal delivery employs the guile and instincts of the seasoned actor he is. He has created an entire world in which these songs live.
Visconti wasn’t kidding when he said the single wasn’t indicative of the album. The whole experience of listening to The Next Day is to find yourself battered around the head by a man who is letting his silence on life, love, death, war, history, religion and politics end. And yet, and this is the crucial point, this is an artistic statement of someone who wants to fight. It is an angry record, one that expresses vicious and contemptuous judgement, but it also talks of the journey of mortality; it’s partially reflective, true, with the odd look back, but it’s very much thematically rooted in the present, in the world he’ll leave for his daughter one day. It would be easy to say that this bit sounds like it could be on Lodger, that bit is straight out of Scary Monsters and so on. But such flourishes are the lesser strokes of a paintbrush on a huge canvas; The Next Day very much lives and breathes in the present. It has its own personality and will find its own place in the canon. You knew it would, because he is far too clever to put something out after this length of time that didn’t stand proudly alongside the rest. Every decision made is a careful one, and there’s nothing wrong with employing his famed level of control freakery if you’re adding to a back catalogue of such immensity.
The first thing that knocks you over is the remarkable pace it sets off at, with the title song having more than a touch of Tin Machine’s abrasive propulsion as it tells a dark tale of medieval death on the gallows. Dirty Boys is like the sex cousin of Sister Midnight , with a groove so filthy you could imagine a tassel-twirling burlesque performer getting off to it in a Soho dive bar. The Stars (Are Out Tonight), divested of its staggering video accompaniment , is a solid gold pop hit, with wonderful melodic work from Gerry Leonard and David Torn and a gorgeous Visconti string arrangement. The dramatic Love Is Lost tells a dynamic yet indifferent, lonely tale of displacement, which seems to lead perfectly into Where Are We Now? For all the talk of nostalgia, it’s the only track that harks back, lyrically at least, to bygone times. When you know you have more years behind you than ahead, and the gift to siphon those feelings into a creative outlet, the desire to blink for a second and allow for reflection is understandable. But it’s a fleeting moment before we’re off again, into a lovely, light pop song, Valentine’s Day, though the subject, a troubled and dark-minded protagonist, muddles its musical sweetness. The face-melting If You Can See Me follows, a song ambitious and portentous enough to have sat comfortably on Outside. The time signature alone is a blood twister and the chemistry of the brilliant Tony Levin and Zachary Alford makes the song what it is.
It’s at this point that there’s a dip, which after the blast of the first seven tracks feels like a surprise. But then again, Scary Monsters aside, it’s par for the course that a Bowie album has a filler or two, which is no crime. Dancing Out in Space is pretty pedestrian (and the title, good as it is, inevitably makes me think of Flight of the Conchords ) and I’d Rather Be High and Boss of Me (great verses, prosaic chorus) are just good songs, they’re not great. But so what? It’s an album where the ideas spill forth unrestrained, and that’s worth a couple of tracks you know you’ll skip after you know it all better. The odd bit of imperfection is offset by huge swathes of intensity and dazzling quality. How Does the Grass Grow? is beautifully crafted and seems to have some combination of cadence and timbre that makes my tear ducts overflow. How does it do that? (You Will) Set The World on Fire is a mammoth track, with a Slick guitar line Pete Townshend would be proud of. It’s the kind of song that he tossed off in the 80s and, because of his general disinterest in his own music during that period, would have let become submerged amid layers of someone else’s production control. Here, it’s powerful, sleek and insistent.
And then, we get to You Feel So Lonely You Could Die (nice title nod to Heartbreak Hotel). If you’re thinking that this straight-ahead rock album is perhaps lacking something, a big overblown epic, say, this is your moment. Bowie knows exactly what he’s invoking here, and you can do nothing but marvel at its sheer bloody cheek. This extraordinary song, a companion piece to I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (itself a parody of a Morrissey homage), or even the hallowed Rock and Roll Suicide, is completely thrilling. It pulls you back and forth, it emotionally exhausts you, and the delivery is off the scale. And just when you think there’s no more emotional heft it can give or receive, as it fades away the drum beat of Five Years comes in and you almost burst out laughing at its brazen flamboyance, arrogance and utter ostentatiousness. The Scott Walker-esque Heat, the album’s closer, is like a Tuesday comedown, a mesmerising mantra-like chant not unlike Heathen.
There are no accidents here. There are no half-thought ideas executed with flippancy. The playing is exemplary and Visconti’s production is imbued with the love and respect and skilled invention that 40+ years of friendship and understanding brings. He knows what’s needed, he knows how to add the right touches intuitively, and the shorthand of their relationship is stitched into every track. Every musician who has spent time making this record has done it with love and devotion in their heart. Asked to keep the album’s existence a secret from those closest to them for nigh on two years, without blinking, without argument, the deal was done. Everyone wants to do their best for him and will wait a decade to get a call then accept the invitation without pause or even a thought of complaint.
All Bowie albums are pictures of his mind in particular moments. Has this set been formed over the last couple of years or has he been collecting and creating, bit by bit, since he walked off stage at his last public performance, the 2006 Black Ball? We will never know, but we do know that recording took place in fragments over two years. Sessions lasting a week, then not a call for months; another couple of tracks, then more silence for more months, until he was ready. If there was external pressure to record or tour, via demands from a record label, from management, from fans, from anyone, he paid little attention. There are no interviews, no explanations. The album says everything he wants to say. He ignored everyone to walk around New York in a baseball cap, and do the odd movie cameo and the school run, and this is what we got.
It’s such a gift, and one I never expected. It’s overwhelming. I could overanalyse it if I wanted. I could try and figure out if, had it come out 18 months after Reality, whether I’d love it this much. I could try and place it in the larger canon and measure it up against albums that have meant so much to me. I could try to think about whether his long absence is affecting how I feel about it. Or I could just answer the simplest question – does listening to it make me happy? Because after all the words are spoken and written, after all the discussion and critical evaluation, and in mind of all of the happiness that I’ve been unable to feel for a year, all that matters is whether it makes me happy. Yes. It makes me happy.