Here I am not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me
And the next day
And the next
And another day
It’s been noted elsewhere that anyone expecting an elegiac album of mournful slowies after the red herring release of ‘Where are we now’ was in for a surprise. The Next Day is an album positively drenched in the death rattle but it’s not the melancholic last hurrah of an ageing rocker eyeballing his future, it’s something far darker and more complex than that.
Lyrically at least The Next Day is easily Bowie’s bleakest album to date. He has often dealt with similar themes – suicide, death, murder, apocalypse even – but mostly in a glamourised, romanticised or pithy way. There are moments such as The Motel or Slip Away that are somber and intense but I’m not sure he has before produced a body of lyrics with such unrelenting harshness. There are flashes of wit and humour but you only need to compare something like the swooningly tragic Rock & Roll Suicide to the sheer venom of You Feel So Lonely You Could Die to feel the shift. Even the two popiest sounding songs on the album (I’d Rather Be High and Valentine’s Day) contain lyrics like:
I stumble to the graveyard and I lay down by my parents, whisper ‘Just remember duckies everybody gets got’
It’s in his tiny face
It’s in his scrawny hand
It’s in his icy heart
It’s tempting with any artist, especially one as shifting and enigmatic as Bowie to try and read biographical confession into song lyrics and certainly with Where Are We Now that seemed all to easy to do – the notion of a sad, elderly David ‘just walking the dead’ around Berlin seemed both plausible and poignant – but realigned within the context of the album it takes on a whole new flavour. With it’s cast of characters ranging from 17 year old soldiers to dying aged despots this is an album firmly written in the second person. Sure, like any art it must ultimately say something about the artist but transparent autobiography it certainly isn’t. This is nothing new for Bowie of course – his transparently autobiographical moments are scarce and many of those that I assumed to be such melted into storytelling for me on closer inspection. He wears many masks and he has always worn them well.
Musically the album is closest in the Bowie canon to the other jagged edges of his career – Scary Monsters, Outside, Earthling, the darker recesses of Heroes and Heathen – only the second single The Stars (are out tonight) recalls Reality and is, perversely, my least favourite track on the album.
Despite the fact I have literally not stopped playing it since it came out it’s taken me until now to tackle a review because there is just so much to digest, and I still feel like I’m only just scratching the surface. This will be an album I listen to for a long time to come. Bravo Mr Bowie.
Finally here’s my track by track for anyone who wants it:
The Next Day
Listen to the whores he tells her
He fashions paper sculptures of them
Then drags them to the river‘s bank in the cart
Their soggy paper bodies wash ashore in the dark
A stomping, beastly little introduction to the album where the words ‘the next day’ turn out to sound more like a threat than any kind of hopeful forward thinking that the album title might have suggested. The bit where he shrills ‘They scream my name aloud down into the well below’ puts a shiver down my spine.
You’ve got to learn to hold your tongue
This ain’t the moon this is burnin’ sun
Slinky and sexy with some lovely sax. Reminiscent of songs like Sweet Thing, Candidate and John, I’m only dancing this was an instant favourite for me. It seemed immediately like it had been in my life forever. An old friend seen in a new light.
The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
We will never be rid of these stars
But I hope they live forever
Musically this is the only track I feel is a little weak, although that’s comparative and I certainly enjoy it a lot more within the album than as a single. It has some great vocal moments and a fabulous video too.
Love Is Lost
It’s the darkest hour, you’re twenty two
The voice of youth, the hour of dread
The darkest hour and your voice is new
Love is lost, lost is love
Your country’s new
Your friends are new
Your house and even your eyes are new
Your maid is new and your accent too
But your fear is as old as the world
This song is just, I’m not sure what to say.. perfect? A brooding, gothic suicide note that breaks unexpectedly and confusingly into a seemingly uplifting middle eight before turning back in on itself as though that moment were an hallucination – a false promise leading towards a foolish act. ‘Oh, what have you done? Oh, what have you done?’
Where Are We Now?
Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that I could do that
Someone who was once far too important to simply take the train finds himself now shuffling the streets of Germany. Maybe Mr Bowie, maybe not.
Valentine told me how he’d feel
If all the world were under his heel
There is little affection from the author for the characters that inhabit The Next Day and the would-be tyrant depicted in Valentine’s Day is no exception. I can’t help picturing a small man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, perhaps a little like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, about to finally let us all know exactly what he has to say.
If You Can See Me
Now you could say I’ve got a gift of sorts
A fear of rear windows and swinging doors
A love of violence a dread of sighs
If you can see me I can see you
If you can see me I can see you
The song on the album most reminiscent of the best bits of Earthling. This one kind of gives me the willies. In a good way.
I’d Rather Be High
The Thames was black, the tower dark
I flew to Cairo, find my regiment
City’s full of generals
And generals full of shit
This was one of the first songs to click with me and I still can’t listen to it once through without hitting replay at the end. Deceptively perky sounding with lines like ‘I’d rather smoke and phone my ex, be pleading for some teenage sex’ jumping out on first listen. I’ve seen it interpreted as a kind of looking-back-on-being-young song when on closer listen it’s nothing of the sort.
Boss of Me
You look at me and you weep for the free blue sky
Not a skip track by any means but the only song I haven’t quite connected with yet. A decent album track but nothing as arresting as the rest of the album tracks.
Dancing Out in Space
Something like religion
Dancing face to face
Something like a drowning
Dancing out in space
The only song that teeters close to something glammy and a little silly sounding. A small oasis of fun, albeit abstract and slightly cryptic fun.
How Does the Grass Grow
There’s a graveyard by the station where the girls wear nylon skirts
I love this song. Not just because it has a chorus that goes ‘Blood blood blood’ followed by a backing ‘la la la’ that sounds almost exactly like that bit in Gremlins 2 where they get melted while singing New York, New York and doing the conga. Not just because of that, but it’s definitely got a lot to do with it.
(You Will) Set the World on Fire
From Bitter End to Gaslight
Baez leaves the stage
Ok so, the fact that the opening chords totally remind me of the Beverly Hills 90210 theme tune is my problem and mine alone. Other than that it’s the sole song with a more conventional Bowie/Fame motif. A pep-talk-come-warning for the promise of success in the vein of Opportunities by The Pet Shop Boys via Eno’s Baby’s on Fire.
You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam
I could read you like a book
I can feel you falling
I hear you moaning in your room
Oh, see if I care
Oh, please, please make it soon
A claustrophobically dark vignette wishing loneliness and death on a malevolent and unlikeable soul – with swooning Spectorish backing vocals. Nasty stuff. In the best possible way.
My father ran the prison
But I am a seer, I am a liar
Another instant favourite, Heat is a clear nod to Bowie’s long-time musical bedfellow Scott Walker with shades of Outside and Heathen mixed in. A somber and downbeat ending that leaves you feeling both satisfied and bewildered.
And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am
And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am
All words by Susan Sloan.