DAVID BOWIE - The Next Day, Part 2

This second extract from David Bowie: The Music & The Changes by David Buckley, published by Omnibus Press in May of this year, focuses on the tracks on The Next Day, Bowie’s ‘surprise’ album of 2013. Tomorrow’s post will give details of the music to be found on the Collector’s Edition.

The best opener to a Bowie album since ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ begins with a single drum kick, like someone slamming a fist on a table, or slamming the car door in annoyance.  A playful, insouciant guitar line then gives way to the appearance of Bowie, a vocal as angry as any since Scary Monsters starter back in 1980.  Gerry Leonard’s snotty riff is perfect and Bowie is in bad humour – choleric, seemingly given up for dead. ‘Here I am, not quite dying!’ sings Bowie defiantly, while the exhortation ‘Listen!’ makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

A parping, jack-the-lad sax line, and the ghost-of-‘Fame’’s guitar riff announce this tale of feral, urban disorder.  Bowie announces in an ominous matter-of-fact line, ‘I will steal a cricket bat/smash some windows make some noise.’ Two songs in, and it’s clear also that Bowie has spent a lot of time crafting these songs as the lovely melody of the chorus shows.

Motown stomper-meets-Motorik, this, the second single from the album was nominated for ‘Best Rock Performance’ for the 2014 Grammy’s. This song fairly tumbles with startling imagery and haunting lines as the stars of today – ‘Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad’ are eerily cast as vampyric alien life forms, ‘soaking up our primitive world’ and who’ know just what we do.’  Incidentally, the mid-song guitar break sounds uncommonly like a snatch of a melody from Roxy Music’s ‘If There Is Something’, covered, of course, by Tin Machine. 

Never has being 22 sounded so hopeless and ridden with futility in this, a cryptic assemblage of observations about youth, outsiderdom, alienation and opportunity thrown away. A highlight of the album, the doomy, insistent beat, angry guitars from Gerry Leonard, Low-era-sounding drums and Bowie’s soulless organ part make this a wonderfully theatrical piece, as undead and breathless as anything on Diamond Dogs. By now one of the features of the new Bowie album is clear; Bowie is taking delight in playing around with vocal styles and techniques, his vocals here eerily double-tracked. The moment when his own backing vocal mockingly call out ‘say, hello, hello’, is a moment of brilliance while the ending, ‘Oh what have you done, Oh what have you done?’ hints at some terrible Macbethian deed done under duress.

The first single, and totally unrepresentative of the album but an instant Bowie classic, ‘Where Are We Now?’ is perhaps the only track on the album where Bowie’s vocal has not been heavily double-tracked, manipulated or augmented by various effects and as such does indeed sound like Bowie’s natural singing voice. One does not get the impression that Bowie’s is modulating his vocal to affect a tremulous, lonely quality as he did on ‘The Loneliest Guy’ for example. As such, its slight frailty is touching and human. “His voice sounds slightly less majestic, slightly older, perhaps inevitably,” wrote perhaps the biggest Bowie supporter of all-time in the media, Jonathan Ross. “But that gives it a quality that suits the song magnificently.” ‘The Bassist Herbie Flowers, who worked with Bowie on ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969, stated, “It made me cry”, while another long-term Bowie-watcher, Karl Bartos (ex-Kraftwerk) opined: “Oh it’s good! He’s locked into that time frame of his Berlin time. It sounds like Kurt Weil. You know, when he plays the piano, he is in love with strange chords. We need him badly. He’s the last one.”
A beautiful, poignant song, it evokes a contented time in the singer’s life, when he was living in then-divided Berlin in the late seventies. Bowie is ‘taking the train to Potzdammer Platz’, sitting in his favourite club, buying food in the supermarket, evoking memories of a time in which he lived a normal life after the craziness of the LA years. The lines: ‘Where are we now?/ The moment you know/ You know, you know’ is a genius piece of writing, a meditation, through repetition, on a split-second moment of self-realisation, while the closing stanza:  ‘As long as there’s sun/As long as there’s rain/ As long as there’s fire/ As long as there’s me/ As long as there’s you’, are the most poetic, most direct and most beautiful lyrics in his entire career as songwriter – ‘sun’, ‘rain’, ‘fire’, ‘me’, ‘you’, the human condition encapsulated in five words. 

Reportedly one of the first songs written for the album, ‘Valentine’s Day’ is in that tradition of pop song along with ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ and ‘The One I Love’, whose title is the antithesis of its contents. A snappy beat and wonderful guitar part from Earl Slick, all twangy and earthy, announces this tale, not of love, but of violence and death, more Al Capone than Amore. Bowie is inside the mind of a killer (‘tiny face’, ‘scrawny hands’), plotting ‘who’s to go’, and how he longed for a time when ‘all the world were under his heals’. A chill snapshot into the psychology of a mass-murderer, the significance of the song has taken on a whole new range of associations since we first heard it in 2013 given the numerous brutal assassinations and religious hate-crime attacks of our times. There’s also, perhaps, a resonance with the killing of his great friend John Lennon. “I was second on his [Mark Chapman’s] list,” Bowie once confirmed.

Gail Ann Dorsey’s backing vocals soar disquieting over a frantic, jarring, drum-and-bass beat before Bowie arrives, his vocal heavily treated and phased: ‘If you can see me; I can see you.’  This is the darkest track on the album and also the most abstract: the Bowie character is now some sort of omnipotent ‘end-of-days’ tyrant’, in a fog of unnatural ambition and desire: ‘I could wear your new blue shoes/ I should wear your old red dress.’ Simultaneously evoking the spirit of ‘Width Of A Circle’ and Earthling’s ‘Law (Earthlings On Fire)’, it is impossible to put a time or a place on this song other than a feeling of Bosch-like ungodliness (‘children swarm like thousands of bugs’,) either deep in the future, or some alternative present in which the medieval mind triumphs: ‘I will slaughter your kind who descend from belief/ I am the spirit of greed, a lord of theft.’ This is astonishing stuff and, in the context of a very fine album, the most ground-breaking piece of music.

With a stately, military beat and beautiful guitar line, ‘I’d Rather Be High’ is an anti-war song of great power and finesse: ‘I'd rather be dead or out of my head/ than training these guns on those men in the sand’, and ‘Cities full of generals and generals full of shit.’ Like much of The Next Day, it is an infuriating puzzle of a song with half the pieces missing. Yet there’s fun to be had trying to get into Bowie’s mind to unpick the seemingly random connections. For a start, are we in the trenches or are we fighting in Helmand? Or both? Or is this a universal sentiment of war being wicked and wrong, the young dying for the rich and powerful? In a valiant (though ultimately futile) attempt by Guardian reviewer Alexis Petridis to unpack the mine of metaphor that includes Nabokov next to Clare and Lady Manners (Petridis points credibly to Bowie referencing the 1910s The Coeterie, the precursor to Waugh’s ‘Bright Young Things’), he concluded, “There's a certain cultural richness here that you just don't find in, say, the oeuvre of the Vaccines.” Quite true.

Although still a perfectly good song, ‘Boss Of Me’ seems out of place on The Next Day, or in the wrong place coming as it does after two such strange songs and before another one song of bluff and double-bluff.  This is a brief journey into the more quotidian world of power and possession, a ‘small town girl’’s sexual grip over the song’s narrator. Saxes honk, guitars growl and there’s a cool middle eight yet ‘Boss Of Me’, if no miss-fire, is a miss-fit.

Not many people, make that, no one else in rock music, would include the lines ‘Silent as Georges Rodenbach/ Mist and silhouette’, in what is, on the surface, pop (the reference, apparently may be to the Symbolist’s poem, ‘Du Silence’). The track begins with demo-like tameness; a drum beat, a winey guitar and possibly the flimsiest handclap accompaniment in the history of rock.  There is a poppy, yet airless quality to this, the most conventionally catchy track on the album, and the lyrics evoke images of a Moon-lit dance in the weightlessness of space where no one can see you: ‘Something like a drowning/Dancing out in space.’

(David Bowie/Jerry Lordan)
Obliquely, some of the work for The Next Day takes us way, way back to a time before even this writer was born. The Shadows had some of the best tunes in pre-Beatles popular music and Bowie takes the melody for ‘Apache’ for this, one of the strongest, yet least discussed tracks on the album. Lyrically, we’re back in the no-man’s-land wartime horror of ‘I’d Rather Be High’, and the two are companion pieces; ‘Where do the boys lie/ Mud mud mud/ How does the grass grow/Blood blood blood.’ The piece ends with a squall of Belwe-esque guitars; the bassline a slight crib of the ending of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, another frankly great moment on an album with their fair share.

Earl Slick owns this track; the riff is big enough to fill the most soulless air-hanger of an arena full of mischief; the only problem is that there was no tour to play it on. Visconti adds an excellent orchestration and the lyric, like ‘Boss Of Me’, is relatively digestible; the PR babble to the young hopeful on a quest to stardom. How different today’s stardom has become when a Karaoke contest such as The Voice can make you a million. Imagine a young Bob Dylan turning up if the show had aired in 1962? No chance, mate.

The final two songs end the album with unstoppable, if quite different forces. Here, Bowie mixes Young Americans-style with, again, pre-Beatles American rock’n’roll, in this song of rejection (does the song, perhaps reference Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ or Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’?). Like several songs on The Next Day, Bowie appears visited by unwelcome shades of the past, singing, ‘I can see you as a ghost, hanging from a beam’, while the line ‘And people don’t like you’ appears so personal, so direct, the listener, hit with just five words, is twisted into a spiral of self-examination about their own lives. Both ‘Rock And Roll Suicide’ and ‘Five Years’ are quoted musically in the ending section, reinforcing the ‘Spectre-Sound.’

The parting shot is a reverie, a soliloquy as if Bowie has taken the stage to release his innermost thoughts. The sad music swirls with violin and the sort of brashly-thumbed acoustic guitar that made Hunky Dory, while Bowie’s vocal is the most impressive of the entire album. Bowie is the seer, but also the liar, the man who tells lies but also tells or maybe sells us the truths to come. In a breath-taking piece of self-examination, Bowie concludes: ‘And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am.’ The Next Day, as a piece, reaffirms this central connection between its maker and its audience; with brilliance.


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