The Next Day

I am pleased to report that as of this week I have officially fallen in love with David Bowie’s new album. It took a little while — the compositions on The Next Day are not, for the most part, immediate grabbers. And the production style is very dense and overloaded, making a complete listening of the album somewhat exhausting; it is best heard four or five songs at a time, say in the car while driving back and forth between Eureka and Arcata.

But just when I started to fear The Next Day was going to come and go without making much of an imprint on my consciousness, I found the songs popping into my head at random times and places. “(You Will) Set The World on Fire,” “Dirty Boys,” “Valentine’s Day,” “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”: great tunes all.

If I do have a criticism, it’s the way the album’s assembled: The sequencing seems pretty haphazard and it could use a little trimming. None of the songs are terrible, but 45–50 minutes are optimum for any album, especially one this information-rich. Fortunately, modern technology makes it pretty easy to create your own version; here’s the one I’ve been listening to lately.

1. Plan
I’m promoting this one from bonus track to the main album. It serves as a nice overture — two minutes of textural guitar noise suggestive of vast spaces and sinister doings.

2. (You Will) Set The World on Fire
A rocker. Opens with a heavy guitar riff, then the drums kick in, and then we hear The Voice: “Midnight in the Village/Seeger lights the candles….” References to the 1960s NYC folk scene abound, but something about this song reminds me of “Heroes”: Is it meant to be anthemic? Is it meant to be ironic? Can he have it both ways at once? Yes, he can. (Why? Because he’s David fucking Bowie, that’s why.)

3. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
This song has really grown on me; it rolls along with clean Germanic precision, an eerie guitar line floating atop the mix. At first it seems almost too precise, but it has an insidious charm. This seems to be Bowie’s take on celebrity culture, where the stars are both more and less than human; “They watch us from behind their shades,” from their stretch limos, “gleaming like blackened sunshine.” One can’t help but think of David himself in the mid-70s, as seen in Cracked Actor.

4. The Next Day
Although this works perfectly well as the opening track, to me it is a little more effective once the album’s had a chance to build some momentum. Like a lot of the songs here, this one has something of a Scary Monsters feel to it; pop music with a serrated edge. You might have thought something called “The Next Day” would have an optimistic slant; think again….

Here I am
Not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows
On the gallows for me
And the next day
And the next
And another day

5. I’d Rather Be High
I’ll be honest with you, though the war imagery on this song is clear enough (“training these guns on those men in the sand”), I’m not sure what Nabokov has to do with it, and I don’t know who Clare and Lady Manners are. I like these little mysteries; someday it’ll all make sense, I’m sure. Musically, “I’d Rather Be High” is quite tasty, with a cascading guitar line that is pleasingly Frippish.

6. How Does the Grass Grow?
Blood, blood, blood, that’s how. A theme is emerging here. The ghost of Graham Greene hovers somewhere nearby.

7. Valentine’s Day
This might be my favorite song on the album. I love the combination of the lush, savory surface — complete with “sha-la-la”s — and twisted lyrics, apparently about a school shooter.

8. Boss of Me
Some reviews I’ve read have tried to interpret this song in light of Bowie’s personal life, with Iman cast as the “small town girl” of the lyrics. I do not find that line of thinking convincing. Word to the wise, do not try to think like David Bowie; you’ll hurt yourself that way.

9. Dirty Boys
This also might be my favorite song on the album — a tense, taut interplay of bass, drums, guitar, and sax punctuated by fierce bursts of controlled noise. Sexy and dangerous. Once again Scary Monsters is the key reference point, though that guitar part reminds me of “Fame.”

10. Love Is Lost
Another tightly wound track, this time based on a relentless, throbbing keyboard line. Once again the mood is dark:

You know so much, it’s making you cry
You refuse to talk but you think like mad
You’ve cut out your soul and the face of thought
Oh, what have you done?
Oh, what have you done?

Is that last bit an intentional reference to the Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime?”, or is it just a coincidence? Discuss amongst yourselves.

11. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
This is a tricky one — though the lyrics say it is grim and spiteful, to me it feels like an uplifting experience. Features a “Wild Is the Wind”–quality vocal performance from Mr. Bowie, not to mention backing vocals lifted straight from “The Supermen.” Lyrically this is sort of a bookend to “Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” only instead of “You’re not alone,” it concludes with:

Oblivion shall own you
Death alone shall love you
I hope you feel so lonely
You could die

Somehow, though, the way the song is presented suggests empathy rather than hate. Or maybe it’s a kiss-off to Osama bin Laden written pre-Seal Team Six? Note to self, follow your own advice in the notes to #8. No one knows what Bowie is thinking, but he is clearly winking at us with the fadeout, a reprise of the drumbeat from “Five Years.”

12. Heat
I am not the first to note this song’s clear resemblance to the Walker Brothers’ “The Electrician”; there’s no mistaking it, so therefore I am going to classify it as homage rather than theft. The key line here is “I am a seer/I am a liar.” True that. “Heat” comes at the end of the offical “The Next Day,” but to me it lacks the emotional resonance of a good album closer; so let’s move on from here to…

13. Where Are We Now?
Bowie fans will remember where they were when they first heard “Where Are We Now?”, the song that marked the end of his 10-year silence (I was here in this very room in my house on M Street). It is by far the most sentimental piece here, and though it is not yet one of those rare songs that regularly brings me to tears, I can imagine that someday it will be. Not only is it lovely and moving in itself, building to a gentle but powerful crescendo, it is also inextricably wrapped up in my mind with this particular period in my life; which is what great music does, innit?

As long as there’s sun
As long as there’s rain
As long as there’s fire
As long as there’s me
As long as there’s you

This leaves “If You Can See Me,” “Dancing Out in Space,” “So She” and “I’ll Take You There” as bonus tracks, and that seems about right; these are all worthwhile but not essential. Now punch my ticket, let’s go back to track 1 and start over again….