The return of David BowieMusic
It's easy to be cynical about the attention given to the first album in ten years, from one of the great figures of the 1970s and early 80s, David Bowie. An album which isn't even out for another week. Old man makes record which confirms to middle aged media types that the musicians of their teen really were the best. Ho hum.
It's worth noting though that just last week a lot of who weren't born until the '80s or '90s were among those who got very excited at the news that Kraftwerk were to perform eight of their albums in Australia. I get that excitement and share it but remember this, Kraftwerk essentially made little new, and even less genuinely striking music, in the past 30 years, their energy mostly spent.
This tough-sounding album is full of outright winning tunes and compact songs whose pop appeal is decidedly fresh.
In stark contrast is Bowie, a contemporary and spurned Kraftwerk collaborator whose influence was as ongoing and significant in its own way as the Germans'. He kept making challenging, adventurous, not always successful or good but constantly changing music right up until his 2004 heart attack seemingly presaged retirement. He didn't deal in nostalgia.
British actress Tilda Swinton and David Bowie in The Stars (Are Out Tonight) video from the album The Next Day. Photo: Floria Sigismondi
While not a perfect album (Boss of Me clumps along anonymously and Love Is Lost feels strained by its end), what makes The Next Day so interesting first of all is how it balances Bowie's tendency to look forward with its clear acknowledgement of the past: musical, personal and universal.
You don't have to work hard to hear echoes of some of his now-definitive moments. There's the honking sax and serrated guitar of Dirty Boys, so reminiscent of his thin, blond and paranoid mid-'70s. Or maybe the impassioned undertone of the “German albums” of the late '70s mixed with touches of the power rock of his '90s Tin Machine experiments in If You Can See Me and (You Will) Set the World on Fire.
Yet lyrically the subject matter can be very modern, as in the bitterly funny idea that celebrities are the voracious, probably alien consumers of our souls in the energetic sweep of The Stars (Are Out Tonight) and the bloody social cleansing of Where Does the Grass Grow. Or it is interchangeable with past, present and future, as in the jackboot tendencies in the title track and the glam-charged Valentine's Day.
David Bowie: a career in pictures
David Bowie Photo: Masayoshi Sukita
The exception to the eyes-forward nature is the sombre, beautiful reminiscence of Where Are We Now? which seemed like a farewell more than a welcome when released earlier this month as the first single. Heard in the context of the album this song, which is in fact quite simple and unadorned, feels emotionally and sonically vast and appears a masterfully composed piece.
Which brings us to the other reason why The Next Day isn't just a sop to those locked in their own “glorious” pasts. This tough-sounding album is full of outright winning tunes and compact songs whose pop appeal is decidedly fresh. Dancing Out In Space combines a slick motor city soul/pop beat, some winding guitar and a monotone delivery (with brief doo-wop interjections) to make a sunshine bright song. If You Can See Me has the irresistible funk and drive of New York's TV On The Radio. And I'd Rather Be High is as high strutting as You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is soulfully intense.
This isn't a comeback nor the second coming and you should be wary of those who make such claims. It is however, a high quality record from someone who knows his way around a rock song and whose past is a comparison point, not an excuse or burden.
David Bowie's The Next Day album cover.
The Next Day is out on March 8