Part of the reason for me beginning this project was the release of this album. Conveniently, as the project was coming to a close, I discovered that a new album, Blackstar, was in the works, which would enable me to extend the project by one unit. I figured that it would make sense to time my review of The Next Day to coincide with the new album’s release, which is today.
The album opener, and title track, is strong but simple. All the instruments serve the song with little flourish, and the purpose of this song is pure energy, letting you know that no holds are going to be barred, and we’re very much still alive thank you very much. It takes a little while to get up to speed, but when it does, it’s most satisfying.
Dirty Boys is nothing but sleaze, right off the bat. The song is moody and filthy, and yes, the saxophone makes a return, how could it not? I also was particularly taken with the bassline, which stutters and judders in a curious way.
I’m very attached to The Stars (Are Out Tonight), the only way I can describe it is that it’s very very early-90s in a thoroughly endearing fashion. That said, it does have one problem, which is a criticism that can also be levelled at some of the other songs on this album, and that is that the vocal melody is fairly uninspired, generally just rattling around on the same note for an extended period of time, especially in the verses. Is this from a lack of inspiration, or a deliberate stylistic choice? Still, the overall effect of the song has the desired impact, with the mystery of the anthropomorphised Stars making you wonder exactly who Bowie is truly singing about.
Love Is Lost is another great song, a blend of electronica with rock, controlled but with a hint that things could disintegrate at any second. In a way, it’s unsurprising when the instruments drop out briefly halfway through, and then come back with a different rhythm, the song having fulfilled its destiny to collapse into a different song entirely. The song then returns and builds up to a grandiose climax before evaporating in a puff of smoke. Very tasty.
Then it’s ballad o’clock, for Where Are We Now? I must admit that I don’t really pay much attention to this song when it’s on, but it’s not so bad that I skip it. It does soar quite nicely towards the end, I suppose.
I was initially a little confused by the existence of Valentine’s Day on this album because musically it seemed a little bland, but as is so often the case, it’s just a case that I hadn’t managed to decipher the lyrics. Once I had them explained to me, it all started to make some sense – once again, Bowie’s pulling that trick of using bubblegum music as the base for addressing a very bleak subject. That said, just because it makes sense now, doesn’t mean I have to suddenly start liking it.
The next song is clearly inspired by Bowie spending too long following lorries on the M4, If You Can See Me, I can see you, he says. Seriously though, this song follows a structure that he’s employed before – the lyrics are a barrage of impenetrable words placed haphazardly atop a sinister hyperspeed track, and it all seems a little disconnected.
By contrast, I’d Rather Be High is solid and coherent. Again, the verse lacks a vocal melody to speak, but the chorus is practically singalongable, and the sentiment is hard to misinterpret. It’s not Bowie’s first anti-war song, and I wouldn’t expect that it’s his last. Some very tasty bass fills in here too, and the vocal harmonies in the outro are well worth the price of admission.
Boss Of Me definitely carries some Foo Fighters influence in there, in so many different ways. That said, it’s a fairly unmemorable track, all things said, and I’m struggling to think of anything to write about it. So bog off.
Maybe Dancing Out In Space will fare better. Certainly it’s trying to be a bit weirder, with a few more wibbly noises, and a sinister male backing vocal in my left ear in the chorus that doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the production, but I have to come clean with you, this is another song that I’ve apparently mostly ignored when listening to it. Skip.
How Does The Grass Grow? is freakishly odd – the verse possesses this droning backing vocal that undermines the entire tune in a totally destructive but curious fashion, though maybe that’s because once again Bowie has fallen back on just singing his lyrics on one note the whole way through and relying on the instruments to provide any sense of melody. And again, the chorus has a pleasant sound, but you can’t help feeling like the lack of a tune is the elephant in the room, and no matter how hard you try, it can’t be disguised. There is a brief breakdown 3 minutes through in which Bowie does deign to actually sing for a while, but it’s over too soon. It’s a shame because this song is chock full of ideas and quirks, and I actually quite enjoy listening to it, it just feels like a crucial ingredient is missing.
(You Will) Set The World On Fire is another of those songs that makes me think that the lyrics must be far more brilliant than I can comprehend, because the music sounds utterly derivative, just some hard rock from the 80s. I know Bowie can do better.
Another ballad-style song it seems, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. The first verse is underwhelming, but from the point that it starts to build up for the first chorus, I start to feel something stir. While I may criticise some of the other songs on this album for phoning it in when it comes to the vocal melody, the same argument is definitely not valid here. It’s reassuring to know that he’s still got it.
Album closers have been a mixed bag throughout this project, what do we get with Heat? More 80s synthitude and fretless bass, it’s spacy and somewhat ghostly with lyrics that I’m not qualified to interpret. I’m afraid I’m going to have to give this one a thumbs down, it does nothing for me.
Hmmm, looking back on this album, while there were some good songs in the first half, it appears that I’ve been fairly underwhelmed by the rest. So it goes.
Right, I’m off to listen to Bowie’s latest album. And unless he’s planning on releasing another album in March, it looks like that will probably spell the end of the project. Until then…
Hits from this album: Where Are We Now did pretty well in the charts, presumably mainly due to the novelty value of Bowie returning after 10 years. A few other songs were released as singles, but didn’t “bother” the charts, as they say.
My favourite song from this album: I’d say The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is the one that probably leaps into my head for this prize.
Next up: Blackstar
this undertaking suddenly takes on a new level of poignancy.
Tell me about it. A part of me feels guilty for every single negative word I’ve written, which is irrational, I know. I didn’t get round to buying Blackstar until today and I’m not sure if I can bring myself to review it. 7 songs written by a man who knows he hasn’t got long left, and this is the final page of his legacy? It’s downright chilling.
Actually, I think your journey through his back catalogue has helped me appreciate quite how astonishing that legacy is all the more. I don’t think anyone will mind if you take your time getting round to Blackstar. I haven’t been able to bring myself to buy it yet. I’ve mainly had “Sound & Vision” running around my head, over and over again. Which obviously isn’t a bad thing.
if i can just pop on to say that I heard Blackstar for the first time the weekend before David’s death and thought that it was undoubtedly a strong album, certainly not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a “catalogue artist” who could be forgiven for coasting. it was good to be able to give it a listen before the events of last week and appreciate it for what it is.
the pre-release videos were in a way a bit too distracting – good but the songs are better without them.
i was lucky enough to get a physical copy last week and listened to it after his death and the songs undoubtedly take on an extra resonance – but it is still a great album. it’s a tough listen but it will still be vital in years to come.
i think your thoughts on it would make a good end to this fascinating series of posts! maybe give it a little time so you can appreciate it without all the kerfuffle?