David Bowie was already contemplating on the subject of aging back in 1999. Already at that point this legendary musical chameleon had reached his 50s. His experimental albums, Outside (1995) and Earthling (1997), where he was more or less trying to prove that he can still bend with the times, were not as commercially successful. But they certainly brought him back into the good graces of critics. He might have said that after his mainstream blunders of the 80s he had returned onto the path of the avant-garde, but it’s a fact that, neither Outside or Earthling were on the same level as his best work from the 70s that he so desperately wanted to live up to.
At the same time, Bob Dylan with his brilliant album Time Out of Mind (1997), had shown that even later in life it’s possible to create a masterpiece. He had written a bunch of top quality, lived through to-the-bone songs inspired by his own mortality and performed them both spontaneously and effortlessly. Bowie had tried something similar with his album Hours. He had come up with a sinister, introspective and genre-less piece which resembled most closely to the album Hunky Dory (1971). No matter how much the album was likeable and easy to listen to, he was playing it safe with Hours. Bowie had, just like Dylan, sung about the finite nature of life; but with the depressive sound of the whole album, he tried to cover up the fact that artistically he just wasn’t at the top of his game.
This is exactly the opposite of what he has offered on his latest album, The Next Day (2013).
Over the last 14 years, Bowie was doing everything and nothing – and with a good reason. At first he was full of energy. He had left all the trends to the younger generations, and recorded a highly praised album Heathen (2002) on which he relied much more convincingly on his musical legacy than he did on Hours. The reason for Heathen’s artistic and commercial success was the comeback of Tony Visconti – the man who produced the best of Bowie’s albums from the 70s, including the last of the major ones, Scary Monsters (1980). In this collaboration with Visconti, Bowie produced one more neo-classic album, Reality (2003); Faced directly with his own mortality, during the album tour he suffered a heart attack. He ended the tour and stopped recording. Even his website went silent. He would appear in public infrequently and was mostly dedicated to his family life with Iman. It was speculated that he retired for good because allegedly his wife forbid him to exert himself. Others were saying that he was trying to pull a Houdini trick and make his long-time fantasy come true – a complete escape from the fame into total anonymity. And some were pointing at the possible fact that Bowie did’t have anything else to say, actually. And that now, after learning his lesson from the 80s, he had decided it was better not to publish anything rather than creating something half-heartedly and ruin his reputation (which he sort of did with Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987).
But then after a ten-year-long darkness, there was a dawn, quite unexpectedly. Bowie announced it on his 66th birthday with the elegant ballad Where Are We Now, in which he very sentimentally (with a somewhat washed up voice) asks what is left from the Berlin he used to know – his sanctuary from all the fame and the madness in the mid-70s and where, over the course of only a year (1977), he recorded four legendary albums (Low and Heroes for himself and The Idiot and Lust for Life for his friend Iggy Pop). This nostalgic dedication to the Berlin of his past was actually a dedication the days when Bowie was at the peak of his creativity and was most influential – this was the main inspiration for The Next Day, from the provocative album cover (the image from his Heroes album cover with the a white square over his own face) to the rhythm and sound of drums in You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, which was directly adapted from the song Five Years off the album Ziggy Stardust (1972).
This obvious homage is the only of its kind on the whole album, which was produced by Visconti, again. The Next Day is not a collection of screaming self-quotations – which it could easily have been – but it’s a collection of fantastic songs with a unifying concept. What is so intriguing about this album – and what elevates it above Heathen and Reality to the level of Scary Monsters – is not only the fact that it offers a superb recollection of the most famous period of Bowie’s career, but is the fact that Bowie is not a slave to that reminiscence. He also puts it in the context of his life experiences – and then, he moves on. When Bowie sings in Love is Lost, “Say goodbye to the thrills of life/When love was good, when love was bad/Wave goodbye to the life without pain.” Those words are not a nostalgia for his youth but are an acknowledgement of his age and mortality. He is not trying to make his voice sound better than it is and he is comfortable in his own shoes, walking towards the future with dignity.
Songs on the album are mainly easy to listen to – The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Valentine’s Day, Boss of Me, (You Will) Set the World on Fire and the above-mentioned Where Are We Now were written to be singles – but darkness is lurking within the music and lyrics. Bowie still sings about suicides, mass murders, and graveyards, and is not any less unsettling than he was before. The title of the album should not fool you with its fake optimism. The title song, The Next Day, certainly does not offer the image of a warm summer day. It’s gothic, nightmare-ish chorus could have easily been sung by Andre Eldritch or Ian Curtis.
Sixteen years after Dylan, Bowie has managed to make his own Time Out of Mind, and it remains to be seen, as the new album is already announced for 2014, if he is going to make his own Love and Theft or Modern Times. In the meantime, The Next Day remains a triumphant proof of artistic vitality and sets an example to The Rolling Stones and younger generations of musicians.