A few days (ahem) have passed since I (legally!) downloaded the latest David Bowie album, The Next Day, and, after a few listens, a few thoughts:
I remain impressed with the album. It’s a solid piece of work with some truly exceptional songs often punctuated by nebulous (but delicious) lyrics. What is most interesting, to me, is to see how a bunch of critics have raised this album to the near mythical status of “Best David Bowie album since Scary Monsters“. With many critics and fans, that 1980 David Bowie album marks the last time Mr. Bowie released a “good” album, a point that I most certainly dispute. The critics also are aware of musical flourishes from previous albums, echoes, if you will, of Mr. Bowie’s past works.
Addressing that point first, let me agree with the critics here. David Bowie fans will indeed hear echoes of previous songs here and there in The Next Day and the accompanying lyrics at times point out that, indeed, Mr. Bowie is engaging in some looking back while also looking at the here and now and/or forward. However, let me be very quick to say that this isn’t necessarily something new. David Bowie’s aborted 2001 album, Toy, was meant to be a very strong “look back” into his musical past. The album was to feature remakes of very early David Bowie songs and only three “new” compositions. When the album was cancelled, some of the material eventually appeared in 2002’s Heathen, including, as a bonus song, the incredible remake of “Conversation Piece”.
By the way (and my apologies for the digression) here is the original 1969 version of “Conversation Piece” as a comparison:
However, way before this David Bowie on the already mentioned Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) took a sly look back at Major Tom from his first hit single, “Space Oddity”, with the song “Ashes To Ashes”:
The point I’m making is that the critics who are so enchanted with how David Bowie is “looking back” with The Next Day seem to either be ignorant of or are ignoring the many other examples of when he did just that in a multitude of instances on previous albums.
Which brings us to the whole issue of whether The Next Day is indeed David Bowie’s best album since Scary Monsters. It is my feeling, after having listened to it several times, that while The Next Day is a damn good album, of the David Bowie albums that followed Scary Monsters, it doesn’t fall as the “best of them”.
At least in my opinion.
Again, though, that’s not to say it isn’t a pretty damn great album on its own.
Music and the arts can be cruel. You can hit the big time with critics and audiences and, a year later, release something you feel is just as good as your last work and no one gives a crap about it. Over time, “his/her old stuff was better” becomes an all too common refrain. Unfortunately, sometimes fans and critics come into new works hoping an artist recaptures his/her old “magic” and are bitterly disappointed when they don’t.
Scary Monsters was a great album and something of a demarcation for David Bowie’s career. The years before -indeed the entire decade of the 1970’s- David Bowie released one classic album after the other, arguably starting with the excellent The Man Who Sold The World and continuing through Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, and so on and so on through the Berlin Trilogy.
Mr. Bowie would follow Scary Monsters with Let’s Dance, an upbeat danceable -yet undeniably sugary- confection. One that I happen to love but that many fans and critics dismissed as David Bowie “selling out”. While the album did great business (I believe it was his best selling album of his career), Let’s Dance appeared to drive a wedge into longtime Bowie fans. Things didn’t improve much with Tonight, the follow up to Let’s Dance which also followed the same general tone of the previous album, only it was less successful (IMHO) overall, despite a few absolutely terrific tunes.
From there, David Bowie stumbled badly. He released what many, including Mr. Bowie himself, called his worst album, the very ironically titled Never Let Me Down. By then, the obituaries on David Bowie’s career were in full force.
Yet I never gave up on him, purchasing every new thing he released as it came out. David Bowie followed up Never Let Me Down with the two album Tin Machine experiment, a group and a set of albums that many critics and fans derided yet I felt were never quite as bad as many felt. Having said that, neither would I put this period of time, and his return to solo work with Black Tie White Noise, as among his best period.
Then came the 1993 soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia. For the first time since the mid-1980’s, it felt like Mr. Bowie had regained his musical footing. While the album was a soundtrack and there was plenty of “incidental” music, the songs were very solid. Despite this, the album was barely released in the United States. Having gotten a hold of a copy (there were no downloads possible back then), I became genuinely excited to hear more from this David Bowie.
With the next album, 1995’s 1. Outside, he didn’t disappoint. If there’s an album I would put up there as being among his all time bests of the “modern” era, 1. Outside would easily be it. Yes, the album was perhaps a little more bloated than it should have been (the in-between-the-songs dialogue bits could at times be too much), 1. Outside was nonetheless a terrific, genre bending concept album that featured a multitude of musical styles and ambition to spare. Mr. Bowie was suddenly white hot to me, and he followed that terrific album with the equally terrific electronica-heavy Earthling.
As far as I was concerned, the David Bowie I loved was back. To the rest of the world, these works seemed to elicit little more than a shrug. Subsequent albums came and went. Though they weren’t quite as good, IMHO, as the one-two punch of 1. Outside and Earthling, they were all strong works
His last album before this new one, 2003’s Reality, appeared and, like the others, received scant attention. What did receive attention was that in 2004 Mr. Bowie suffered a heart attack while on tour for Reality. Afterwards Mr. Bowie abruptly turned away from the spotlight and a host of questions came from fans and critics. Was David Bowie done? Was he retiring from music? Would Reality be his final album?
Years passed. Before his heart attack, Mr. Bowie would regularly release a new album every year or two. After nine years and no new album, no new concert, and precious few public appearances, many, including me, gave up hopes he was coming back.
Thus, when the release of The Next Day was suddenly announced, all that concern was all at once dissolved. David Bowie was back! We had a new album! Hooray!
I suspect this abrupt, delightfully surprising return made many critics who didn’t bother with many of Mr. Bowie’s recent works to give The Next Day a closer look than they might have if it had been simply “another” release. What many of them heard in this new album delighted them and the reviews have been very strong.
Which makes me shake my head.
Where were you guys when Mr. Bowie started his renaissance back in 1993?
Again, it is my feeling The Next Day is a damn good album. But it also represents a part of continuum, again in my opinion, to albums dating back to 1993’s The Buddha of Suburbia. To all those ex-David Bowie fans who feel he didn’t do anything “good” since Scary Monsters, do yourselves a favor…check out the six albums he released from The Buddha of Suburbia to Reality.
You might be surprised.