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Week 68 | The Next Day (2013)

“The Next Day” is the tofu of Bowie’s catalogue— its flavor is heavily influenced by where it finds itself.  The album was perhaps Bowie’s biggest surprise because it was released with little warning, ten years after his last studio album and after years of apparent retirement.  Those circumstances contributed to the pleasure— almost relief— that fans such as myself have experienced from the album.  I listened to it over and over for weeks, and actually journaled my reaction over the course of several days.  Sure enough, the music is good, however I suspect that my reaction, as well as that of most critics, would have been different had “The Next Day” been released at other points in time.

Staying with this— say, “The Next Day” was released in 2005, two years after “Reality.”  It would have probably gotten the “best since Scary Monsters” treatment that all Bowie albums since “Black Tie/White Noise” received, and then would have faded in 2007 when the next album after that rolled out.  On the other hand, had it been released as part of the Berlin period sequence, it would probably hold up as a classic, with one or two tracks making it to “greatest hits” status.  If it came out following “Let’s Dance,” it might have been embraced as Bowie going back to form.  In the early 1990s, during the Tin Machine period, it would have probably been deemed a noble failure.  

In this respect, I think “The Next Day” is not the kind of album that will turn a new listener into a fan.  It has many virtues, and again, the quality of the music is among them, but aside from the circumstances of its release, I don’t think the music has the kind of first-impression power of, say “Ziggy Stardust” or “Let’s Dance,” both of which turned a lot of new listeners into fans.

There’s at least one near-great song, which is “Where Are We Now.”  This was the song that heralded the album, and I strongly suspect it would have become a prominent piece of Bowie’s set list if he started touring again.  Its a beautiful, reflective song, seemingly about Bowie’s past (between the references to Berlin and the album cover being an alteration of the “Heroes” cover, we get the hint).  

I also think that it was not coincidental that the lead-off single and the album title suggest a movement of time.  “Station to Station” suggests movement, which is what “Where Are We,” without the “Now” would have also suggested.  But the song title, and really the tone, if not the actual words of the song, suggests a kind of reassessment after movement through time.  So too, “The Next Day.”  As is often the case with Bowie’s words, they seem to address a question, though exactly how is a little unclear.  Fans had been wondering where Bowie had been and whether we had a future as a fan base of an active musician.  One day he was promoting, “Reality,” then he was gone.  But this is the next day, where we are now.

The albums’s greatest strength is that it contains an enormous amount of music.  I ended up purchasing at least three different versions of the album (don’t ask).  The “Deluxe Edition” contains 18 songs, plus a bonus disc called, “The Next Day Extra,” which I will treat as a distinct album.  There’s a lot to like, and even if you don’t like it all, there’s at least enough to like.  

Bowie traditionally had a great sense of how to begin and end an album.  He begins this one with the title track, which really isn’t about what we might expect it to be about.  It is, however one of my favorite songs from the album, and it is also an energetic kickoff.  The original final song is the slow-paced, “Heat.”  This follows one of Bowie’s two patterns— start off with energy, then burn out (this was done most explicitly with, “Scary Monsters,” which begins and ends with two versions of, “It’s No Game”).  (The other pattern is to start out slow and end in a blaze of glory, as with “Ziggy”).  

I usually don’t like bonus tracks because they break up the order Bowie intended, but in this case it doesn’t matter much.  I strongly suspect that Bowie had it in mind that this album was made for the age of shuffle.  He was trying to figure out how the internet could interface with one of his albums with, “…hours,” (another time reference), which both contained a song that included lyrics from a fan who won an online contest, as well as adaptations of music originally used for a video game.  While the album was not a disaster, the attempt at innovation was a misfire.  Not this time.  Songs from “the Next Day” more or less can be played in any order, or plucked from the album and survive on playlists without additional context.  It is the anti-concept album.  

There are plenty of songs here that hold up on their own— the anti-war song, “I’d Rather Be High;” “Boss of Me;” “How Does the Grass Grow” (which might also be an anti-war song); “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” are among my other favorites.  

“The Stars Are Out Tonight” is not among my favorite songs from the album, but it holds a special place.   It joins the ranks of “Ashes to Ashes” and “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” as a song about the downside of what happens over time due to a trait Bowie celebrated in an earlier song.   In this case, Bowie makes use of one of his most enduring devices— the word “star,” which he uses to mean both a famous person and the kind of bright thing in space.  Bowie’s song, “Star,” sits on the same album as “Starman,” and is quasi-autobiographical in the sense that it telegraphed Bowie’s intention of becoming a famous person.  “The Stars Are Out Tonight” suggests that fame might endure too long— “We will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever…”

As is evident from what have written to this point, it is difficult to think of “The Next Day” outside the context of Bowie’s past work, at least for those of us familiar with Bowie’s past work.  If there is an overarching point to the album, that might be it.  Which is also something of an explanation for why Bowie might not have intended for “The Next Day” to be directed towards new audiences.  He did this one for the fans.

   

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