The cover art for The Next Day is the cover of Bowie’s 1977 album Heroes with a white box that simply reads “The Next Day” in the center, concealing 90% of the original cover art by Masayoshi Sukita. This obscured album cover comes courtesy of Jonathan Barnbrook, who also designed the art for Bowie’s criminally under-rated albums Heathen and Reality. Given the new album’s title, it would seem that Bowie intends to say that he’s picking up where Heroes left off. That was then, and this is the next day.
The Next Day opens with the title track, a stomping, up-tempo number with a classic ’70’s Bowie vibe that recalls him at his darkest if not bleakest. (At one point the song even becomes distorted, calling to mind Bowie’s stark Nine Inch Nails-ish album Outside.) “Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree, its branches throwing shadows, on the gallows for me,” he sings somewhat angrily during the chorus. It’s an infectious number with jangly guitars that get inside of your head and stay there, yet one could interpret the lyrics as meaning that Bowie is only back begrudgingly, that he’s returned to let people see him rot, as they’ve apparently so desired. It’s unlikely that Bowie actually intends for those lyrics to be taken that way, however, as it would seem — from things recently stated by producer Tony Visconti — that he only worked on this album sporadically during the past couple of years during those times when he was genuinely inspired and happy to be making music again.
Regardless of how you interpret the album cover or the title track, The Next Day is David Bowie’s brilliant new album, period. These are songs that find him at the top of his game and that’s all that should matter. That some people feel the need to speak as though Bowie is intending to say that everything he did in between Heroes and The Next Day doesn’t matter, or that all of those albums are terrible, is completely unnecessary and I should think Bowie would rather people just enjoy the new album than try so hard to read into things. Or, at the very least, read into what the new songs are actually about and let them speak for themselves without trying to determine how they relate to Bowie himself personally.
During one of the album’s strongest, catchiest tracks, the heavy guitar-centric “(You Will) Set The World On Fire,” Bowie sings, apparently about fame, “You will set the world on fire, I can work the scene and I can see the magazines.” The second verse opens with the line, “Kennedy would kill for the lines that you’ve written.” It’s fascinating and thought-provoking, but I’m not here to tell you what it means, much less what it says about Bowie himself. I’m just here to tell you to sample the goods, that you simply must hear this record.
Two of the album’s strongest tracks are the ballads, the haunting single “Where Are We Now?” and the awe-inspiring, doo-wop-fueled “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.” During the later, Bowie sings, “You’ve got the blues, my friend, but you will leave without a sound, without an end.” With gorgeous strings and powerful backing vocals by Gail Ann Dorsey and Janice Pendarvis, it’s one of those rare songs that pierces your soul and makes you entirely aware of just how alone we all are. It’s also an intoxicating number perfect for nighttime listening. To that end, the entire album just begs to be listened to at night, sitting in the dark with mere candlelight. The songs may say many different things, but I should think that’s the best way to indulge in them, to really hear them.
While there are no bad songs on the album, another gem that must be mentioned is the energetic, amphetamine-like “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).” “Stars are never sleeping, dead ones and the living, waiting for the first move, satyrs and their child wives,” Bowie sings over a thick bass line and lush strings. The epic track also features powerful baritone sax and clarinet by Steve Elson. “We will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever,” Bowie sings deadpan as the song nears its epic ending. Clearly, it’s a song that says so much, but I’ll leave it for you to draw your own conclusions. To that end, look no further if you want an album that’s guaranteed to make you think.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of The Next Day is that it’s an album that can be savored by all of Bowie’s fans. If you’ve only liked his Berlin stuff, this one is for you. If you liked his experimental ’90’s albums, this will thrill you, too. And if you only liked his “Let’s Dance” era, well, maybe this isn’t for you, but in that case there’s no hope for you either so I digress.