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WERS is celebrating David Bowie’s latest release, The Next Day, as our April Album of the Month!
“Here I am, not quite dying,” David Bowie chants along on the upbeat title track to his first new album in ten years, The Next Day. “My body left to rot in a hollow tree, its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me.”
Although Bowie’s long time producer and so-called “voice on Earth” Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone in an interview that Bowie wrote the track “The Next Day” after reading about tyrants in medieval England, parallels between the character in the song and Bowie himself are practically inescapable.
After a health scare that caused Bowie to undergo emergency surgery in 2004 to address a blocked coronary artery, the rock icon seemingly fell off of the planet. Hidden away from the public eye, Bowie ceased his musical output and embraced what many listeners thought to be a retirement from his nearly forty-yearlong career. For almost a decade, not as much as a blip had been heard on the scanners back at ground control.
Music fans had more or less written off David Bowie for dead.
How wrong they were.
As Bowie proves with The Next Day, he’s not dead yet. The burst of revitalization that starts with the opening title track radiates throughout the album like a supernova, showing that Bowie is still more than capable of creating his signature brand of rock music infused with all of the grandeur, glitz, and tragedy of a Broadway-sized performance.
While all of the songs on the album are certainly united by their thread of Bowie’s rejuvenation, the overarching theme of The Next Day is slightly more challenging to pinpoint. The album is a strangely cohesive mosaic of contrasting sounds and tones, varying from the carefree funk of “Dancing Out in Space” to the maniacally threatening crash of “If You Can See Me.”
Bowie’s wisdom that he’s gained over the years certainly appears to be one potential theme of The Next Day, with several songs featuring Bowie’s characters offering guidance of sorts to younger individuals. “Love Is Lost” is a crawling, techno-tinged warning of an older, wiser man to a naïve girl about her imminent loss of innocence. On the other end of the spectrum, “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is an indisputably fun, energetic promise of glory and fame complete with its own rip-roaring guitar solo, all accented with the slightest twinkle of irony.
Bowie’s apparent fascination with the loss of innocence carries into other tracks on The Next Day as well; except, instead of exclusively focusing on the natural loss of innocence due to age, Bowie specifically expands into the corruptive nature of war. In “How Does The Grass Grow?,” Bowie turns a famous military chant used during combat training into a disorienting and hypnotic collection of jumbled instruments and voices. Similarly, in “I’d Rather Be High,” Bowie takes on the persona of a youthful soldier who has severe misgivings about his decision to surrender his youth and join the military.
What is fascinating about the tracks on The Next Day and Bowie’s overall artistic process is that as a songwriter he tackles major themes, like the loss of innocence, but always through the voices of different characters. Even after a hiatus, The Next Day shows the endurance of Bowie’s ability to simultaneously create multiple perspectives and resultantly give listeners insight into the multidimensionality of David Bowie as an artist and as a man, without ever revealing more than he wants.
Amongst many things, The Next Day raises the question of if the world will ever get to know the real David Bowie. It is relatively impossible to capture the true David Bowie in his music because he is constantly moving around behind the various guises of characters, and it is even more challenging to become acquainted with him in person because of his self-induced vow of silence in the media.
While there will be arguments between critics over which era of Bowie’s history The Next Day most closely resembles and disputes between fans over whether or not Bowie’s new sound is the right sound, none of that ultimately matters. What does matter is that a musical icon thought to be gone is back and recharged and ready for the future. As everything about The Next Day indicates, from its secret conception to its avant-garde album cover, the enigma that is David Bowie lives on. And that’s the way that he wants it.