March 13, 2013

Test Spins: David Bowie, The Next Day

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Last Friday, David Bowie released his first album in a decade. At 66 years old, Bowie has been a cultural icon for over thirty years, a span of time unfathomable to those of us still under 25. For my generation, Bowie is less of an artist and more of a myth, an inhuman legend whose 1969 arrival on “the scene” — though, to be honest, he practically created the scene — we can only dream about. 21st century Bowie is, shall we say, far more reserved than the bodysuit-clad glam space alien our parents knew. Yet that Bowie remains an icon for our generation, one we commemorate through Drag Ball costumes and Flight of the Conchords parodies and appropriated sentimentality for an era before our birth. The mythology behind Bowie makes him almost impossible to review; I feel like an impostor reminiscing about a time I never even experienced. And yet I’m told that The Next Day is important. Maybe it’s Bowie’s comeback, or a final love letter to a lengthy and complicated career. But it’s important to consider David Bowie’s 25th studio album in context of the present, avoiding what LCD Soundsystem called “borrowed nostalgia.”

That said, Bowie’s 25th studio album serves up its fair share of nostalgia — of the totally valid, non-borrowed variety. On the first single, “Where Are We Now?,” Bowie muses on a time when he shared an apartment with Iggy Pop in Berlin in the late 70s. It was during this period that he recorded the Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes and Lodger. He’s sentimental and pensive, “a man lost in time near KaDeWe.” “Valentine’s Day” looks to the past in a different and certainly darker way. Ostensibly the story of a high school shooter, the track pairs sha-la-las and layered 1960s vocals with a strong guitar lead and images of your stereotypical high school (“the teachers and the football star”). The composition may be wistful, but the subject matter reflects the thoughts of an older and wiser man. Social critique is not new for Bowie, but the commentary on “Valentine’s Day” — as well as a later pair of anti-war songs — feels piercingly relevant.

Those wartime tracks would be “I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does The Grass Grow?” The former is a 21st century response to Vietnam War protest songs with a magnificently jarring chorus (“I’d rather be dead / or out of my head / than training these guns / on those men in the sand”). It’s interesting to note that Bowie often places himself in the shoes of a much younger character, whether that’s the frightened soldier (“I’m seventeen and my looks can prove it”) or the teenage shooter in “Valentine’s Day.” Meanwhile, “How Does The Grass Grow?” borrows its chorus from a chant used in bayonet training and peppers its political commentary with the sharply personal (“Would you still love me if the clocks could go backward? / The girls would fill blood, and the grass will be green again”).

Forever a chameleon, Bowie at times channels Morrissey — if I didn’t know better, I’d say “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” came straight off Viva Hate — and at others sounds like a David Byrne/Tom Waits collaboration. “Dirty Boys” is a rich, brass-heavy track whose saxophone baseline is one of the more brilliantly surprising additions on the album. It bristles with attitude the same way “How Does The Grass Grow?” burns with rage and discontent: lustily and undeniably.

Above all else, The Next Day is a meditation on mortality. Tackling topics that range from war to loss to personal nostalgia, Bowie leaves few stones unturned. It’s a challenging record to be sure, and one that feels like a (perhaps premature) capstone on a long career. But The Next Day also holds it own apart from its maker’s mythos. It may not be easy to penetrate, but this record is beautifully dense and richly expansive. The Next Day carves a wide, winding path through the modern musical and political landscape. David Bowie has stripped himself of the folklore and the costumes, presenting a poetic reflection on human nature. Of course, feel free to approach it with all the nostalgia you can muster; there’s still plenty of nostalgic weirdness to go around.

Original Author: Gina Cargas