David Bowie shocked the world in January when he released the lead single from a new album that no one knew even existed. A decade into a self declared retirement from making new music, he’d sworn his band to secrecy about The Next Day, the album he managed to put together completely on the sly. No journalist broke the story. No Twitter leaks. No accidental stray mentions. In this all information all the time era, that alone qualifies as an achievement. But the release of the full album today may be even more of a shock. The single, Where Are We Now?, was a beautifully tragic portrait of a broken Bowie crying his eyes out for all to see – and seemed to signal that the rest of the album would follow the theme. Try again.
From the first riff of the opening title track, it becomes clear that this album is anything but a series of self pitying moments. The Next Day, the song, punches at you defiantly with a driving percussion track behind a Bowie who sounds almost gleeful as he sings “Here I am not quite dying” while seeming to write off the rest of humanity who “can’t get enough of that doomsday song” as a high pitched guitar line swirls above him just to raise the stakes. Three minutes into the album, and whatever expectations the lead single might have given you for this record are out the window.
The next three minutes manage to do the same again. The microseconds of empty space between punctuated notes on the mid tempo Dirty Boys might leave the listener tempted to feel as if Bowie has come under the spell of Queens of the Stone Age, until one recalls of course that the influence has always flowed in the other direction. This is, in some sense, the Bowie song that QOTSA has always been trying to make.
The defiant and slightly paranoid nature of the album continues with The Stars (Are Out Tonight). But that theme turns a bit ominous with Love Is Lost, which as it turns out is the setup for Where Are We Now? The single, we learn, is also the album’s big left turn. It’s not so much an atypical outlier as it is the contrasting centerpiece of the album. That of course leaves you with no idea what to expect from the nine songs that come after it – and you come to understand that the reason why Bowie has been playing games with the secrecy and release of this record is because the record itself plays games with your expectations throughout.
Case in point: after the title track finishes sprawling its grand tears, the album shifts to a gently uptempo are borderline cheerily sentimental song called Valentine’s Day – which might be the best song on the record and arguably should have been the single. “Valentine sees it all,” he whimsies with just enough of a wink that you wonder if he’s referring to himself. “He’s got something to say. It’s Valentine’s Day.” Yeah he’s definitely rubbing it in. “Valentine told me how it feels.” No, nevermind, he’s not the Valentine character after all.
Your expectations get played with so much and so often that by the time you get to a song titled Dancing Out In Space, whose title begs you to expect it to be influenced by some combination of Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Space Oddity eras, you’re not all that surprised when you realize that it musically bears little in common with either one. And in the final track when he repeatedly refers to his father having run a prison, you instinctively hit Google search and aren’t surprised to learn that Bowie’s father was instead an employee of a charity. So what’s he really talking about in the song? As with the rest of the album, who the hell knows. But it’s a fun ride, with enough recurring vocal, sonic, and lyrical themes that you’re left with the gut feeling these fourteen songs are meant to fit together, even if he’s never going to quite spell out for you precisely how they do – except to offer the occasional non-hint which twists the knife even further. After all, the album cover is literally just his old Heroes album cover with a black line drawn through the word “Heroes” and a white square placed over his face. Come on, who does that? And why? Is this album meant to be a continuation of the Heroes storyline, the tale of what happened the day after? Or is he saying he’s going back to the past with this record, or is he saying screw the past? After listening to The Next Day a few times, you’ll still be asking yourself the same questions. And that’s the beauty of it all.
To date David Bowie has done no interviews for this album, booked no television appearances, offered no hint of a tour or any live performances which might help offer any additional insight into what was going through his head as he spent his retirement secretly working on this record that officially never existed (note to non-famous musicians: don’t try this at home. Such a strategy only works if you’re David Bowie). But if he did serve up any enlightenment, it might make it too easy and take the fun out of the ride. For a musician who once famously told a reporter that he had “nothing to say” about a new album and equated writing about music with dancing about architecture, Bowie has shown this time around that he wasn’t kidding: he’s decided that The Next Day either stands on its own or it doesn’t. And the verdict is that it very clearly does.