Sunday, April 14, 2013

David Bowie - The Next Day

It’s perhaps fitting that my first review on this blog is of a new David Bowie record. Without going into too much background, Bowie is my favorite artist and sharing my opinions about his newest work might be the most elucidating way to shed light on my tastes at the outset of this endeavor.

The Next Day has been getting rave reviews from all corners with proclamations of “Bowie is back” and the now-de rigueur tag of  “best since Scary Monsters” (please, ladies and gentlemen, let’s retire that one). As a Bowiephile, I concur. This is a nice record.

“Nice” is not how most critics are describing this album, however. “Revelatory” and “twilight masterpiece” are the more common assessment. I believe the accolades accompanying this record have more to do with the fact that people are just glad to hear Bowie again after being away for so long (ten years, “Five Years” times two) as well as the masterful way in which he suddenly and magisterially reappeared in a display of his trademark manipulation of the pop culture machine.

Dropping a video for the first single, “Where Are We Now,” on his birthday was an inspired attention-getting device, the kind of move Bowie built a career around. It created instant goodwill amongst the fanbase who never forgot him over his decade-long absence and likely had their calendars marked on January 8th anyway. I heard a lot of people describing the song as beautiful and having a floating quality. I made a few crude comments with regards to the latter, agreeing that it indeed did seem to float, but maybe should be flushed.

In short, I didn’t like the first single. It reminded me of Hours… which to my ears is the worst David Bowie album. After further listens I’ve warmed to it. The ending is nice. Everyone else thinks it’s his best song in forever though and I just think I must be missing something. Even now it’s still far from being my favorite song on the record.

So what do I like? I like “Dirty Boys,” “Love Is Lost,” and “Heat.” Those songs are great. And although the last of those is really David doing “The Electrician,” that’s a proposition I have no objection to. The other two are tough and sparse with a lot of room in the mix.

The whole first half is fairly consistently good. The opening title track is a decent “Day-In Day-Out,” not terrible, not great, placeholder. The sax on the aforementioned “Dirty Boys” and its Berlin-referencing production is great stuff. Second single and third track, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” is good, but nowhere near as good as Rob Sheffield thinks it is. In fact, I think Sheffield misunderstands the meaning of the song entirely. “Love Is Lost” has a kind of fried mania that you don’t hear in pop music very much anymore. It’s a sound of desperation, which at Bowie's age is all the more surprising.

“Where Are We Now” contextually sits better after the intensity of the first four songs. What sounded limp on its own now sounds like welcome relief. Initially, I interpreted this song as Bowie making peace with his former Berlin-era self. Now I hear something different, something larger than self-reflection. It could be read as an analogy for Germany itself coming to terms with its dark past. “Valentine’s Day” is a fun glam-stomping throwback, but it comes off like a lesser version of something like Ian Hunter’s “Morons.” Musically, it’s Bowie referencing his own past (this time Ziggy-era), but lyrically it seems to tackle gun-violence in schools and bullying ala Pearl Jam's "Jeremy," Heathers, or the trench coat mafia.

It’s the next section, however, where I feel the album falters. The next five songs are mediocre at best. They’re all mid-tempo “jams” that lack strong melodic hooks. They seem self-consciously quirky for their own sake. “How Does the Grass Grow?” isn’t terrible. I can’t say the same of “I’d Rather Be High.” Having them all in a row in the middle of the album just drags the whole record down. None of them are essential and I don’t think any of them would make particularly good b-sides or bonus tracks (more on this later).

The album does end fairly strong. “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is an 80s-Bowie styled rocker, but a good one. “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is kind of a mash-up of Bowie’s “Rock & Roll Suicide” and his cover of Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Going to Happen Someday,” with a “Five Years” drum outro. This bombastic ballad is professionally well-crafted, but it doesn’t move me very much – at least not as much as relatively recent triumphs like “The Wedding Song” or “Strangers When We Meet.” The closer, “Heat,” however is a stunner, uncompromising and from the gut. This sounds like the voice of David Bowie in a self-imposed exile for ten years.

Thus ends the canonical album. There are three bonus tracks which are included on all formats except one version of the digital album, which in essence, really at that point becomes the abridged version of the record. Tracks aren’t “bonus” if you have to go out of your way not to get them. That said, these tracks are pretty great. They belatedly make up for the saggy middle section of the record, and beg the question, why did “Dancing Out In Space” make the cut and “I’ll Take You There” didn’t?

The answer may lie in that like a lot of artists Bowie may not be the best judge of his own material. Can you imagine how incredible the Ziggy Stardust album would have been if it had included “All the Young Dudes” or “Velvet Goldmine” instead of “It Ain’t Easy?” Geez, David, you could have given Mott the Hoople “Sweet Head.” Instead he gave them a pick between “Dudes” and “Suffragette City.”

These bonus tracks offer an opportunity. If you take out the five bland songs, “If You Can See Me” through “How Does the Grass Grow,” and add in the three bonus tracks instead (“So She,” “Plan,” and “I’ll Take You There”), you wind up with a much tighter (around 45 minutes), much better, and more listenable album. Add in the excellent, Japanese-only bonus track, “God Bless the Girl,” and you’ve really got something.

Here’s my proposed version of the record. Notice that I placed “Plan” as an intro to “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” just as the video does.

Side One:

1. The Next Day
2. Dirty Boys
3. Plan
4. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
5. Where Are We Now
6. Love Is Lost

Side Two:

7. God Bless the Girl
8. So She
9. Valentine’s Day
10. (You Will) Set the World on Fire
11. I’ll Take You There
12. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
13. Heat

Give it a listen and tell me it isn’t better than the released version of the record. One of the great things about the digital listening experience is the ability to reconstruct and repurpose records to fit your taste. Although this does strip away some of that old-fashioned idea of artist intent, it actually makes for a more-inclusively participatory model of art.

Does this mean I didn’t buy the expensive double-LP of the album with saggy section etched in the permanence of the running order? Of course I bought the vinyl. After all, it is a Bowie album.

Finally, let’s talk about the album cover. Personally I find it ugly, completely redundant, and unimaginatively sterile. I understand it’s probably supposed to be a commentary on Bowie’s own iconic status and perhaps a way for him to take control and deal with his legacy, but it feels cheap and hollow. It exists on the back of the past more than it does as active presence of his present. It’s not as bad of a cover as Reality or Hours…, but still.

So, what’s next? Another ten year wait? He can do whatever he wants; he’s David Bowie. Now that he’s broken the retreat, perhaps we’ll hear from him more frequently, maybe even outside the context of an album. I’d welcome new singles or EPs, released quickly as soon as they’re done. Bowie seems to be at his best when he’s busiest. I’d like to see him work with other people more as he’s one of the greatest foils/collaborators/instigators in rock history (think Reed, Iggy, Eno, Mott, Queen, Nile Rodgers, etc.).

Whatever he decides to do, we’ll all pay attention because he still reaches greatness with a frequency that is rare in any medium.

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