The cover art of David Bowie’s newest album, “The Next Day,” is a modified version of the cover of his 1977 album, “Heroes.” A large white square obscures the photograph of Bowie that graced the cover of “Heroes,” and the older album’s title is crossed out. The cover of “The Next Day” suggests that Bowie, while highly conscious of what his newest album owes to his past work, is insisting that this new and unexpected release be regarded as a classic in its own right. Although judging an album by its cover is always a risky enterprise, Bowie effectively demands that we do so, and the cover art of “The Next Day” is not misleading. In his newest album, Bowie stays close to his artistic roots but does not simply imitate his past work, providing an engaging album that can stand both on its own and proudly alongside his previous albums.
The album opens with the title track, an energetic, percussion-fueled piece with raw power maintained by distorted guitar riffs and Bowie’s snarling vocals. “Here I am, not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree,” he growls in the chorus, but the singer seems as alive as ever, and the vitality and vigor of this title track is sustained throughout the album. “The Next Day” covers a shocking breadth of thematic ground, ranging from “I’d Rather Be High,” a psychedelic anti-war song told from the point of view of a shell-shocked soldier, to “Valentine’s Day,” a melodic track with a twangy guitar riff that almost allows its audience to forget its dark subject matter: a prospective high school shooter on the verge of a mass murder.
Although the cover art suggests that “The Next Day” is heavily influenced by “Heroes”—the second album of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, which was recorded in Germany and was hugely concerned with the atmosphere of the Cold War—Bowie’s new album seems to use the older album mainly as a reference for comparison rather than a source of inspiration. The album’s first single “Where Are We Now?” name-drops many iconic sights in Berlin, from Potsdamer Platz to the colossal department store KaDeWe, clearly harkening back to the Berlin Trilogy. However, Bowie departs cleanly and easily from his earlier tropes as he moves further into the album, nodding to his past work without becoming mired in the tried-and-true formula for success that he discovered on “Heroes.”
The triumph of “The Next Day” is that it combines the many different artistic styles of Bowie in one album, rather than being dominated by the influence of only one period of his many-faceted and eclectic career. For the first time, the various personas Bowie adopted at different points in his career—the extravagant alien rockstar Ziggy Stardust, for example, and the classy but callous and coked-up Thin White Duke—are seemingly brought to life on one album, a truly impressive feat. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” one of the album’s strongest tracks, displays this sort of amalgamation of Bowie’s past styles and themes particularly well. The song combines two of Bowie’s favorite topics—outer space and society’s fascination with fame—in an upbeat, strings-laced track that plays on the notion of stars both as celestial bodies and celebrities.
Thankfully, on “The Next Day,” the now 66-year-old Bowie is not attempting to sound young. He does not stray into the high-pitched yelps that characterize much of his earlier work but remains in his smooth, increasingly frail baritone vocal register. Bowie’s voice is, admittedly, not as strong as it used to be, but his newest album doesn’t suffer for it. In fact, the singer’s weakened voice may paradoxically make “The Next Day” a more powerful album than it would be otherwise. His delicate, almost fragile crooning imparts a sense of vulnerability and elegantly restrained emotion. And, as many of the album’s songs are directed at a younger generation—as evident in Bowie’s thematic fascination with drugs and pop stars—the apparent age in his voice lends some credence to his agile and eccentric lyricism. While many songs directed to a younger audience by similarly aged stars may feel patronizing, Bowie’s music remains—even as he ages—decidedly sympathetic to the plights of youth.
After such a long hiatus from recording, Bowie risked falling into one of two extremes. Either he would fail to significantly innovate his sound and stagnate as an artist or, in an attempt to keep up with changing times, he would alter his sound so extremely that his new music would becomes unrecognizable to his older fans. With this dark and boldly creative album, Bowie seems to have found a stable middle ground by combining his successful past styles with a sense of maturity and self-control in a new, unique sound. This new album is proof positive that the passing years have been more than kind to Bowie—his artistic hand has been steadied by age, but his manic energy has not dimmed.
“The Next Day” certainly feels like a conclusion, one Bowie’s audience never realized it needed until the man himself suddenly announced the album only a few weeks prior to its release. But, like his newest album, David Bowie has always been full of surprises. However unlikely it may seem, there is some slim chance—some faint hope—that “The Next Day” will be not a conclusion, but rather the beginning of a new era.
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