Bowie’s surprise comback album is a Kenwood blender-mix of ingredients from his last forty years’ back catalogue. Excluding The Laughing Gnome.
When Bowie got over his mid-life crisis (Tin Ear Machine), got married, moved to NYC, floated shares in himself on the stock market and went silent for ten years, we all thought that was it. But he’s back, now 66, with a new album of seventeen immaculately crafted songs echoing Ziggy, Scary Monsters and the rest.
I spent my teenage years at friends’ houses alternating between the Bowie catalogue and Monty Python LP’s, so I have a certain affection for the man, even into the Nile Rogers, Thin White Duke phase, Baal, Pat Metheny collaborations and movie soundtracks (Cat People among them).
I, like many, was taken by surprise by the arrival of the single Where Are We Now and the album. A certain trepidation followed. Can the now Grand Old Man recapture the magic?
The title track The Next Day is so perfectly up-tempo Bowie it’s almost a pastiche.
Dirty Boys goes all Kurt Weil, performance art, fat saxophones and atmosphere. Until the silliness of the lyrics undercut the whole thing: “I will buy a feathered hat / I will steal a cricket bat.” Here you begin to hear Bowie’s voice is much matured – not so powerful, but the expressive, plaintive wail is still there.
The Stars are Out Tonight is also distinctly Bowie, mid-tempo rock and existentialism, a little reflection on one small man’s place in a big universe.
Love is Lost with it’s hooks, rhythmic piano and Cat People guitar licks rolls along, a maudlin Bowie aria; ‘oh what have you done?’
Melancholy ballad Where Are We Now, not so new after blanket radio play, is a product of a mature man; the reflective side of Heroes, casually name-dropping Potsdamer Platz and heading on from there. The mood and the voice are almost Robert Wyatt-like.
Valentine’s Day is a playful, bouncy, riff- and hook-laden character song that rolls right back into Spiders of Mars territory, gentler and with all the rough edges filed off. But it stays with you, even after the idea of Valentine as a character in a story strikes you as silly. ‘He’s got something to say.’ Apparently. Although I’m still not quite sure what. No change there then.
If You Can See Me is a fast prog-rock track, proving Bowie can still inject some high-art and some energy into some heavily symbollic, dischordant, Threepenny Opera nonsense.
I’d Rather Be High: well, it’s better than the alternatives in this dysfunctional, oppressive world. Bowie makes it rather attractive in a Beatles-inspired production that’s very much a 70’s protest song with a bit of Blur Brit-pop thrown in.
Boss of Me goes back to sax and those early seventies albums, small town girls and unequal relationships.
Dancing Out in Space is a jolly, up-tempo jaunt, a discordant nursery rhyme wrapped in guitars.
How Does the Grass Grow? nods toward the Nile Rogers era with the production, 60’s pop with the vocals and who knows what with the lyric.
(You Will) Set the World on Fire (very important, the brackets in the title – very 70’s). It’s prog rock with a touch of the Let’s Dance album and Led Zep.
You Feel So Lonely You Could Die – back to melancholy loneliness and isolation, then, in a half-decent tune and trying to sound like a thirty-year old Bowie in his Velvet Underground phase. And he almost pulls it off. The voice peaks and cracks like it used to, only a little thinner.
Heat returns to Cat People and some of those down-tempo navel-gazing tunes; ‘love is theft,’ ‘it’s too big a world,’ ‘…and I tell myself I don’t know who I am.’ Major Tom? ‘I am a seal. I am a lion.’ Hm.
So She lifts off in sunny-pop mode again, with a jaded enigmatic lyric at odds with the tune – until ‘she saw me smile.’ It’s actually Bowie’s redemptive lovesong. Then it’s finished, giving way to Plan, a clanging industrial instrumental. Takes all sorts I suppose.
I’ll Take You There gets back on track, a classic Bowie Fashion-statement of the early era. ‘These are the days – the days of gloom.’ Oh please. It’s actually a lovesong to an absent lover. It’s got legs for radio airplay on every station imagineable. And we’re done.
So what have we got? An interesting, quirky and uniquely Bowie album from a much missed man. Where Are We Now? is produced by regular Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti so the production may be updated, the Bowie sound over-familiar, flattened by so many imitators in the intervening years: the soul is the same. The very same.
But it has light and shade and somehow feels like a Greatest Hits collection of songs you missed first time around. Worth repeated listens. And if you work out what all the lyrics mean, drop me a line. RC