13. The Next Day

The Next Day

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.

The Next Day Single

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.

the stars are out tonight

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.

love is lost

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.

Valentine's Day

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.

the next day extra cover

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”.

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16. Heathen

heathen

Heathen” is David Bowie’s 25th studio album and was originally released on 11th June 2002.

Soon after the release of the “Hours” album, Bowie separated from his long time collaborator Reeves Gabrels, so the follow-up was always going to sound somewhat different to those of the recent past. The follow-up album was originally going to be the “Toy” project, an album of re-recorded versions of songs he had (mainly) written in the 60’s/early 70s prior to becoming the well-known rock icon. Remarkably (this is David Bowie remember), he couldn’t find a record label willing to release the album and the project was eventually shelved (it was “unofficially” released on the internet in 2011).

Although “Toy” was produced by Mark Plati, during the recording sessions, he became re-acquainted again with Tony Visconti, the producer responsible for many of his classic 70’s albums. They had last worked together way back in 1982 during the recording of the “Baal” EP and both thought why not get together and see if they can maybe produce the same magic in the studio again.

Visconti provided some of the string arrangements for the “Toy” project and some of the recordings became the catalyst for the new album to come. Some became reworked tracks on the album proper, while a number became B-Sides for the various singles from the album.

Recorded during an extended period from late 2000 through to early 2002, the “Heathen” recording period included the horrors of what happened on that fateful day on 11 September 2001. Although Bowie has said that none of the tracks directly related to the terrorist attack that occurred in his then home town of New York, I have always felt that much of the mood and atmosphere of the album (in tracks such as “Sunday” and “Slow Burn”) were influenced by those terrible events.

That said, the album is simply gorgeous and full to the brim with beautiful songs and wonderful vocal performances by Bowie. The Visconti influence is there, but his skill has always been to capture the “current” Bowie at his best and the production on this album is superb. The melancholy of David Bowie circa 2002 is captured perfectly, with a highly talented bunch of musicians (lead ably by Visconti on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums and David Torn on guitar, with Bowie playing a number of instruments, usually a good sign) adding to what truly is a wonderful album.

It begins with “Sunday“, a quiet, atmospheric piece with a stunningly beautiful vocal by Bowie. If it’s not specifically about 11 September 2001, it’s certainly about someone who has survived a catastrophic, harrowing event in which nothing has changed, but everything has changed. The intro sets the scene:

Nothing remains
We could run when the rain slows
Look for the cars or signs of life
Where the heat goes

with a chant like quality to the whole thing.

It builds slowly from there, with touches of new instruments and voices coming in here and there, until the climatic finale with Bowie’s despairing “Everything has chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanged” and Matt Chamberlain’s wonderful drum work taking us out.

Next comes “Cactus“, a cover of the Pixies track from their album “Surfer Rosa”. Bowie was a huge fan of the Pixies and he does this song justice with a nice performance. Typical of the album, the softer/quieter tracks are often interspersed with harder/louder tracks throughout.

The next track “Slip Away” was one of those originating from the “Toy” sessions, under the original title “Uncle Floyd“. Although some at the time thought the song was a nod to Pink Floyd, whom Bowie loved particularly during the Syd Barrett era, it actually references “The Uncle Floyd Show” which was a children’s puppet show during the 70’s and beyond. Another slow, melancholic, atmospheric piece, it has a certain yearning for a bygone era which would have been perfect on “Toy” but also works rather well here on “Heathen”.

Slow Burn” is my favourite track on Heathen, a wonderfully eerie rocker, with Pete Townsend providing some excellent guitar. Another song with 9/11 murmurings, it has all the elements of classic Bowie; a catchy, forceful rhythm, great lyrics, great vocals and that wonderfully unique instrumentation and arrangement quality that only Bowie can create. The lead off single from the album (but oddly not in the UK where it wasn’t released despite there being a number of different versions), it’s one of the classic Bowie songs that sadly most people would never have heard. A video of the song was recently released post his passing which is well worth watching. Watch video here.

slow burn

Afraid” is another “Toy” offshoot, although this time much of the backing tracks are essentially the same with the song remixed for “Heathen”. It’s perhaps one the weaker tracks here, although that’s always a relative term when it comes to Bowie. It has a nice guitar track throughout and again Bowie is in fine form, but it doesn’t have the distinctive quality of many of the other tracks here. It was a song often performed during the “Reality” tour and I think sounds much better live.

I’ve Been Waiting For You” is another cover, this time from Neil Young’s debut album. It works rather well here, with Visconti’s bass dominating and with again some excellent musical arrangements and guitar work (this time from a guest appearance by David Grohl). Bowie sings it with obvious affection and so passes the “does it deserve to be on the album” test. Released as a single in Canada only.

I Would Be Your Slave” has a catchy rhythm and string like arrangements, but it’s Bowie’s vulnerable vocal performance that lifts this song to a higher status. A plea to a potential loved one, that Bowie promises he would be dedicated to if they only opened up, you get the sense the relationship is ultimately doomed. It’s typical Bowie pulling the emotional heart-strings.

I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship” is an absolute riot. The third cover on the album, this is a song by “The Legendary Stardust Cowboy”, a key influence in the making of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie sings the song in his most camp voice and it really is quite hilarious. Although much of the album has a sad melancholy, this just lightens up the mood of the whole piece. There really is hope for mankind, it just requires us to leave the planet and take a ride on a spaceship. “Weeeelllllllll” indeed !!

5:15: The Angels Have Gone” is another highlight, just a truly beautiful song. About separation, both physically from a foreign town and emotionally from a failed relationship, it just has everything one can want from a great song. Musically, it’s simple but also has that sprinkle of Bowie magic in the touches here and there and in the slightly odd, drum based rhythm.

The next track “Everyone Says Hi” continues the high standard with a more uplifting accompaniment to the previous song. Here, the theme is again about leaving, but from the perspective that everyone misses you and that if you ever want to return, the old life is there waiting for you (all your friends, Mum, Dad, the dog…). Released as a single, it came out in a vast array of options, which made it really expensive for us Bowie fans.

Everyone says hi

A Better Future” is a little flat and plodding in comparison to what has come before. It has a nice enough rhythm and keyboard based hook, but Bowie’s deadpan vocal and the lack of any great emotion or change in musical structure makes it one of the weaker tracks here. Somewhat forgettable.

It all ends with the title track “Heathen (The Rays)“. With a brooding arrangement and basic drum backbeat, it rather nicely rounds off the album. It has a religous like quality, perhaps an older man’s “Word On A Wing”:

Steel on the skyline
Sky made of glass
Made for a real world
All things must pass
Waiting for something
Looking for someone
Is there no reason?
Have I stared too long?

Wow, what a great album and this from a then 55 year old who had already achieved so much.

Another tracks worth mentioning from around this period:

Conversation Piece“. This was released as a bonus track on a second CD that come with limited editions of the album when first released. From the “Toy” sessions, the song originally dates way back to being the B-Side of Bowie’s early single “The Prettiest Star” (featuring Marc Bolan) and is an early indication of the genius that is Bowie. It’s an early masterpiece and one of the most beautiful songs he’s ever written. This version is not quite as stunning as the original, but that wonderful sense of vulnerability is still there.

Wood Jackson” featured as the B-Side to the “Slow Burn” single. Sounding really really sad, it’s a truly eerie piece about a clearly troubled musician who can’t quite get a grip on life. Believed by some to be based in part on the musician Daniel Johnston. For those occasions when you might feel a little lonely.

Shadow Man” is possibly my favourite piece from this whole period. Another early song of Bowie’s dating back to 1971 and beyond, recorded again during the “Toy” sessions, this is such a great song. Previously never officially released (although an early version recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions has been available on bootleg albums for some time), this is just brilliant and this version is possibly Bowie’s finest vocal performance in his whole post 1990’s era. This version is so damn good, that it was included in the “Nothing Has Changed” compilation released in 2014. Mainly piano based, with a quiet arrangement, Bowie’s voice is front and centre and is just stunning. Appeared on some B-Sides of the “Slow Burn” single and on the bonus disc of the re-released limited edition of the album.

Safe” is an outtake from the “Heathen” sessions, it’s another brooding song but with a much more expansive arrangement, with squealing guitars and louder, anguished vocals. It’s not as strong as much of what made it onto “Heathen”, so you can see why it was dropped. Again featured on the bonus disc with the re-released version of the album.

When The Boys Come Marching Home” is another “Heathen” outtake and perhaps the weakest track of the lot. With a nondescript arrangement and clear military musings (including the drum beat), Bowie would tackle this topic far more impressively on “The Next Day” album. For now, this track is nothing more than a curiosity.

You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” dates all the way back to 1966 when Bowie was a total unknown and the lead singer of “Davy Jones & The Lower Third” when this song was released as a single (the last single before becoming David Bowie). It was a flop then and although this version from the “Toy” sessions can be viewed as an improvement, it’s still not the best song in the Bowie cannon. An interesting piece, but I actually prefer the original with the fresh sounding Bowie vocal of its time. Included as a B-Side on some versions of the “Heathen” singles and as a track on the bonus disk of the re-released album.

Baby Loves That Way”  was originally the B-Side to the single “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” by “Davy Jones & The Lower Third” and was also re-recorded for “Toy”. Here, the original is much the better version, with this having all the life and energy of the original drained away. One can see why the “Toy” concept was rejected by record companies based on this track. Again, included as a B-Side on some versions of the “Heathen” singles and as a track on the bonus disk of the re-released album.

The album cover (which I’ve used as the background to my computers ever since) is certainly up there as one of Bowie’s most distinctive covers, featuring Bowie’s “out of this world” eyes.

Overall, “Heathen” was received positively by both the music critics and by the public at large. It reached No 5 in the UK charts, No 14 in the US and even made it to No 9 here in Australia. Not bad from someone releasing their 25th studio album and who couldn’t be bothered recording any videos to help promote the thing.

Bowie did tour the album on a somewhat limited basis between June and October 2002 in both Europe and the US (but again not in Australia goddammit). The first couple of dates included playing both the “Heathen” and “Low” albums in their entirety before the tour proper started (how cool would that have been !!). Many of the “Heathen” songs were also covered during his final “Reality” world tour.

Listening to the album now, it really has aged rather well and is typical of much of Bowie’s output. A little ahead of its day, with a lot of brilliance and with very much a timeless quality that one can forever fondly listen to.

It was certainly a cause of some excitement at the time that Bowie and Tony Visconti were back working together again after so many years. In the end, Tony Visconti would turn out to produce all of Bowie’s future albums. Sadly, there were only three more to come, “Reality” released in 2003 and after a 10 year hiatus, the superb “The Next Day” and “Blackstar” albums.

Both the latter albums have yet to appear in my list, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Best Tracks: “Sunday”, “Slow Burn”, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone”, “Shadow Man”