An old story: an art professor split his class in two, and assigned each a task. The first group was to make a piece of pottery each day until the end of the year. The second group was to spend the entire year making a single perfect pot. At the end of the year he compared their work: the first group’s daily pot looked much better.
Bowie became distant from public life after his heart attack in 2004. He never formally announced his retirement, but sometimes people don’t. In 2013, with no warning or notice, he released an album: his first in 10 years. All of the eleven classic Bowie albums (TMWSTW to Scary Monsters) came out in a similar block of time.
It was called The Next Day, and it had an aura of artistic disrespect, from the “vandalised” cover to the lack of pre-release publicity. This approach was becoming trendy in 2013 (just a year ago, Death Grips released an album with the drummer’s penis on the cover). Albums like Ziggy Stardust sometimes seem to creak under the weight of their own heraldry: clearly Bowie’s approach was to release music free from all that. A few years later and TND would have been dropped straight to Soundcloud, along with a fire emoji.
But it’s casual release barely disguises an album that’s fraught with labour. This statue bears its chisel marks: these songs were written and produced over long periods of time, and sometimes sweat with indecision and self-doubt. The Next Day is never more compelling than in the moments when you realise that Bowie must have come close to scrapping the entire thing.
It’s produced by Visconti, and features an impressive lineup of Bowie Band Members from Christmases Past. Gail Ann Dorsey, Sterling Campbell, saxophonist Steve Elson, Gerry Leonard, and David Torn. Perhaps most plangent is the presence of Earl Slick, who provides a crushing single-coil riff on “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” as well as a link back to the glory days of Station to Station. I really enjoy Slick. He might not be as technically capable as Mick Ronson, or as colourful as Carlos Alomar, but he outlasted both of them.
The Next Day it offers music drawn from one of two wells. The first is heavy rock, the second is vaguely U2-ish light rock with ambient and jazz influences. The title track is the most bombastic and magniloquent of the rockers, containing abrasive riffs and lines like “they know God exists for the Devil told them so”. It’s followed by “Dirty Boys”, which is slower but equally savage, its disembowelling stabs of brass pierce the listener like rusty switchblades.
On “The Stars are Out Tonight”, Bowie offers his most coherent thoughts yet on artifice and illusion. The public’s obsession with celebrities seems vapid and awful, but not having celebrities at all might be even worse. His vocals sound querulous and thin, but powerful when they need to be. This is classic Bowie: he sounds weak, but then casts weakness aside like an ill-fitting cloak.
Other tracks are musically indistinct and lyrically indecipherable. On “I’d Rather Be High”, “How Does the Grass Grow”, and “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” he mixes apocalyptic fervour with introspection and perhaps autobiography. Ever since “The Bewlay Brothers”, Bowie’s listeners have known not to take him too seriously (or too lightly), and TND contains reams of lyrics in that vein.
I don’t think it’s a great album. Despite its lengthy gestation it sounds like it could have come out in 2003: as with Reality most of the songs go in one ear and out the other. There’s no spark. “Valentine’s Day” is just mush, “I’d Rather Be High”, “Where Are We Now?” is a ballad so weak it sounds like it could be extinguished by the draft of a shut door, and “If You Can See Me” is a triage squad of musicians furiously overplaying to compensate for the deadness of the music.
It’s over fifty minutes long, and has forty minutes of hooks. The material soon overstays the listener’s patience: even the furious title track just sounds toneless and dumb after a while, like we’re listening to Tin Machine again. TND has many great moments, and even a few great songs, but as a whole it’s exhausting and overlong. It’s like what they said about Wagner: sixty great minutes and a poor hour.
Can it be called a return to form? What form? Bowie has many. There’s vague echoes of the a better past, but also lots of modernistic touches. This is a latter day Bowie album, with influences from some of the worst parts of his catalog. If it’s interesting, it’s for the truly terrified moments, with Bowie just not sure of what comes next. He is a man not prepared for the future, but nevertheless having it bear down on top of him.