“The Next Day” is David Bowie’s 27th and penultimate studio album, originally released on 8th March 2013.
I will never forget that magical moment back on 8th January 2013 while holidaying in Hawaii, when my son excitedly shouted out that Bowie had just released a new single and was going to release a new album in the coming weeks. I thought he was just joking, this surely couldn’t be true after so many years in hiatus. I had all but given up on Bowie ever again releasing any new material, with his last album “Reality” released way way back in 2003, but to my astonishment and glee, the joyous news breaking throughout the music world that day was indeed true.
The single released out of nowhere that day, “Where Are We Now?“, was a slow, moody piece that wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but seriously who cared, Bowie was finally back !! (As it turned out, the single was another clever piece of deception as it was nothing like the rest of the upcoming album).
During the 2003-04 “Reality” Tour, Bowie suffered a mild heart attack on stage on 25 June 2004 which resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the tour and emergency heart surgery. This frightening episode had a marked effect on Bowie, with his public appearances and performances becoming rarer and rarer, until in 2006 when he performed at the “Keep A Child Alive” charity event in New York, his last ever live public performance. He did subsequently perform “Chubby Little Loser” on the hilarious Ricky Gervais “Extras” TV sitcom and make other sporadic appearances on TV (such as the voice of Lord Royal Highness on “SpongeBob SquarePants”) and film (as Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige”) but in terms of new music, nothing.
The general consensus was that Bowie had unofficially retired from music, focusing now on his family and health. So it’s kinda remarkable that in total secret, with all musicians involved strictly sworn to NDAs, that Bowie began recording new material in 2011 in New York along with his long-time producer Tony Visconti. In the age of social media and 24 x 7 news cycles, that these sessions were successfully kept secret was indeed a marvel and totally unheard of (although such “surprises” have been used a number of times since, such as with Beyoncé).
The impressive musical ensemble consisted of many who played with Bowie on his previous few albums and tours, including Zachary Alford and Sterling Campell on drums, David Torn, Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard on guitars and Gail Ann Dorsey and Tony Visconti on bass, with Bowie himself playing some acoustic guitar and much of the keyboard pieces.
After periodic sessions spanning 2 years, the result was the highly impressive “The Next Day” double-album. The album was primarily a rock-art based affair, with lots of references to his past, both musically and personal. But importantly, it came out sounding fresh and energetic, with lots of interesting musical twists and turns, impressive from someone who had just turned 66 years when released.
The album opens with the brilliant, frantic, title track, “The Next Day“, about as different as you can get from the quaint, retrospective “Where Are We Now?“, the only prior taste of the album we had (and all part of a complex joke I’m sure). With images that reminds me of some grisly scene from “Game of Thrones”, this hard-rock track tells the nightmarish tale of suffering and torture due the hypocrisy of some religious order. Put in the perspective of Bowie illness with cancer, some of the images and messages here take on a new perspective. Released as the 3rd single off the album, the video directed by Florina Sigismondi and staring Bowie along with Gary Oldman and Marion Cotillard caused much controversy with Christian groups due to its graphic religious imagery. Check it out here.
“Dirty Boys” is a quieter, slower affair, with its honky sax thanks to Steve Elson (who first worked with Bowie way back on the “Let’s Dance” album). It has a wonderful sleazy vibe that I’m sure Bowie was after. With its reference of stealing “cricket bats”, it also highlights that despite living in New York for many years, Bowie was still very much an Englishman at heart.
The next track, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is one of the real highlights, a wonderful driving rocker, with a slight 60’s vibe thanks to Steve Elson’s sax and doo-wop backing vocals. Unusual for Bowie, it’s not actually about the stars in the skies but a somewhat cynical look at the stars on your TV screens. Bowie’s vocals are just spot on here, good enough to be nominated for a Grammy for “Best Rock Performance”. This was the 2nd single off the album, which would I think have made a stronger lead-off single and much more indicative of the rest of the material found within. The excellent video also directed by Florina Sigismondi and co-starring Tilda Swinton as Bowie’s wife features the current older Bowie meeting up with his younger Ziggy Stardust androgynous self. You can watch it here.
“Love Is Lost” slows things down just a tad, with another wonderful brooding track, with touches of the vibe from the “Scary Monsters” period. The guitar work by (likely) Gerry Leonard is especially good, as are Bowie’s vocals who again returns to the topic of lamenting lost love. The track was significantly extended and remixed by Steve Reich with lots of hand clapping and touches of the “Ashes To Ashes” classic baseline and released as yet another single (number 5 but I’m losing count here). It also featured a video rumoured to be the cheapest ever made (at the pricey sum of $12.99 US for a thumb drive) and recorded by Bowie himself in his home apartment with puppets of his past personas. Watch the video here.
“Where Are We Now?” is possibly the most well known track off the album, thanks to its status as lead-off single when released on Bowie’s birthday in 2013 during the big reveal. It’s by far the slowest, most brooding track on the album, with Bowie reminiscing about his time in Berlin during the 1970’s. Perhaps because I’ve heard this so often now, I actually regard this as one of the weakest tracks found here, despite its often late classic status by many music critics. Watch the video here.
“Valentine’s Day” is another classic Bowie rocker and yet another highlight on the album. One of the darker tracks despite its classic rock feel, it depicts a USA school massacre by a demented student and rarely for Bowie, makes a political point by showing his disdain for the guns laws in his country of residence. Tragically, such a massacre would indeed later occur on Valentine’s Day in 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Released as the 4th single off the album, the simple video features a demented looking Bowie playing his guitar as one would a gun. Simple but effective. Watch the video here.
“If You Can See Me” takes me back somewhat to the demented computer of the “Saviour Machine” from the “The Man Who Sold The World” album (from which much of this album seems inspired), but converted now to human form. Starting off with a high pitched wail from Gail Ann Dorsey, the lyrics spells out a demonic, chilling vision from thee who is “the spirit of greed, a lord of theft”. With thumping drums and bass line prominent, it’s actually Bowie’s treated, at times hysterical vocals that dominate this impressive track.
“I’d Rather Be High” is one of two “protest” war songs on the album, with the protagonist showing clear disdain for the military hierarchy forcing him to train guns on subjects in the sands (the reference to Egypt suggests this could be more a reference to WWI or WW II rather than more current middle-east conflicts). He would much rather be high smoking drugs and having sex (then again, who wouldn’t). With a catchy refrain and military style drum beat, it’s another great track and another that got the remix treatment and released as yet another single (I think I’m up to 6, but losing track now) Watch the video here.
“Boss Of Me” is possibly the low point on the album. Featuring again Steve Elson on sax, it’s a little ploddy musically, with the middle-eight section the clear highlight. Bowie’s vocals are excellent as they are throughout the album, the song detailing how a “small town girl” becomes such a dominant person (his wife perhaps).
“Dancing Out In Space” is an altogether different affair, a truly fun, catchy piece that sounds light and bouncy but has a slight edginess hidden within the lyrics. With the common Bowie theme of “space”, this however is more to do with “inner” rather than “outer” space, with water referenced a number of times suggesting perhaps an escape via drowning. I just love this track.
As indeed I do “How Does The Grass Grow?“, the second anti-war track on the album and one of the album highlights. With a clear musical nod to the classic “Apache” during the chorus, the dark lyrics suggests a soldiers regret at killing innocent women in a war zone. Bowie’s vocals are again somewhat distorted, suggesting he’s playing another character here, except in the middle-eight section when he’s back being the narrator. It’s just a powerful, moving piece with lots of musical twists and turns that is Bowie at his best.
All that said, “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” is yet another brilliant track and possibly THE highlight on the album. The music is that wonderful combination of being catchy, powerful and full of little Bowie highlights. The most native “New York” of all the tracks, it takes you back to the 60’s Greenwich Village folk scene, full of old reminisces set to a current rock setting. Bowie at his absolute best.
“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” slows the pace down a tad, a quieter more tender piece, with a beautiful arrangement and stunning Bowie vocal performance. I’ve always felt this was a piece where Bowie is lamenting with some assassin or criminal on past sins and how could he possibly live with himself. It’s another wonderful moment on the album, with the fading back-beat a clear reprise of the magical drum piece from “Five Years” off the “Ziggy Stardust” album.
The album officially closes with “Heat“, an atmospheric, brooding piece with Bowie again looking into his past and lamenting that despite his age, still doesn’t really know who he is. The track is typical Bowie, full of obscure imagery and with a sad quality that hits a nerve. Bowie’s vocal is just beautiful, as indeed it is on most of the album. After the frantic nature of so much of the album, a quieter piece to end it all.
After being away from the musical scene for such an extended period, “The Next Day” really was a stunning return by Bowie. It was both critically acclaimed and a commercial success, reaching the top of the charts in the UK and in much of the world and No.2 in the US and Australia.
The album when initially released on CD as a “Deluxe” version with a number of bonus tracks, that were also included on the double LP version of the album. These were:
“So She” is yet another really catchy piece, with a beautiful Bowie vocal. The music is mellow, with acoustic guitars, soft keyboards and dreamy soundscapes featuring more than the roaring guitars more typical on the rest of the album. Put this down as a hidden Bowie gem.
“Plan” is a slightly sinister instrumental, with a nice catchy back-beat and guitar loop. Unlike most of Bowie’s other instrumentals that usually feature keyboard synthesizers, this short piece is more rock oriented. You can hear “Plan” at the start of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” video.
“I’ll Take You There” is a fantastic track, that sounds not unlike “Born In A UFO” that appears on the Extra version of the album. It’s a great rocker, with a fabulous chorus line that indeed does take you there. Co-written with guitarist Gerry Leonard, another track that probably deserves more than being just a bonus track, but there’s just not enough room.
Later in 2013, another version of the album was released called “The Next Day Extra“, a 3 disc box-set version of the album which included the original album, a DVD of 4 of the promo videos and a CD of extra tracks from the recording sessions. These included the 3 bonus tracks listed above, the re-mixed versions of “Love Is Lost” and “I’d Rather Be High” and the following previously unreleased tracks:
“Atomica” with its driving rhythm and strained vocals has an almost glam rock like quality, without ever reaching the point of self-parody. It fits the overall feel of “The Next Day”, being in part a backward retrospective of Bowie’s entire career.
“The Informer” starts with swirling soundscapes, before moving into a powerful Bowie vocal, where he sounds the most like his previous couple of albums (think “Heathen“/”Reality“) than anything else off this album. Perhaps one of the weaker bonus tracks in that the musical element just seems to be lacking something.
“Like A Rocket Man” comes across as part revenge for Elton John nicking his coloured hair and outer spaceness with “Rocket Man”. It’s a bouncy, poppy piece with a 60’s vibe but like much of Bowie, the musical gaiety hides a darker lyric which directly references drugs and cocaine specifically. So into the mid 70’s we go with Mr Bowie in this excellent piece.
“Born In A UFO” is such a Bowie song title, but the music sounds more like a combination of Bruce Springsteen (think “Born in The USA”) and his own Tin Machine period. It sounds a little like “I’ll Take You There” found also on this bonus disk, although it’s not quite as good. Perhaps a song that in part covers the current part of his career?
“God Bless The Girl” is my favourite of all the bonus tracks, a really nice piece that has an almost gospel vibe to it all. Bowie sounds “younger” here and it reminds me of his 80’s period, but in a good way. This was included in the Japanese pressings of the original Deluxe version of the album.
Put altogether, all this new material, with not a cover in sight, equates to a triple album worth of musical gems. Bowie clearly had some serious catching up to do.
One of the big controversies with the new album was the cover. Unlike almost every Bowie album which featured a current image of our hero, this took one of Bowie’s most well known previous album covers “Heroes”, covered all the album text (except “David Bowie”) with a thick black marker and splattered a big white square containing the text “The Next Day” over the artwork. I must admit to not being a fan and would have much preferred a nice new photo, but that said, I have grown to like it much more these days and appreciate the courage it must have taken to have put it together.
Sadly, despite much financial persuasion, Bowie refused to tour the album or even conduct a single interview with the press to promote it. Although he was finally producing new music, he remained a recluse and left the promotion of the album largely to producer Tony Visconti.
For Bowie to produce such an impressive, high quality offering after being away from the music scene for 10 years and at the grand age of 66, is nothing short of amazing. Bowie unfortunately only had the one album left in him, the majestic “Blackstar“, which artistically is arguably even better. However, whereas “Blackstar” takes me to a sad place, this album will forever remind me of that wonderful holiday in Hawaii where I first heard the big news, and so gets ranked (just) the better.
As wonderful as “The Next Day” is, I still rank a dozen other Bowie albums higher, an indication of just what a crazily brilliant body of work Bowie produced. But that’s a topic for another day…
Best Tracks: “The Next Day”, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, “Valentine’s Day”, “(You Will) Set The World On Fire”.