Published: Varsity (Lent 2013, Issue 4) – 8th March 2013
Old age- the epitome of punk.
Supper at 5, chugging pints of Ovaltine at 7 and bedtime at 9, flipping the bird at the world as you sleep; after nearly half a century of service to society, you’ve earned the right to do whatever the hell you want. Why there aren’t more OAPs getting lairy in the park, off their face on Special Brew, I’ll never know.
London 2012’s parade of national heroes made it clear that few have contributed more to music than David Bowie. The icon’s absence from the event was sorely felt and reported to be for reasons as disheartening as retirement and distressing as grave illness. His 24th album, The Next Day, could not be further from this deception.
Without fuss, the show fizzes into being with its title track, a gobstopping pledge to continued life. Bowie howls through his teeth: “Here I am, not quite dying” – simultaneously gasping for breath from exhaustion and firmly in charge. It’s as if these words are the cork barely keeping his rage, perhaps at the media already writing his obituary, filling his bones from exploding.
This thin space between control and chaos is a constant characteristic of the LP. ‘How Does The Grass Grow’ is an utterly cacophonic cyclone of demented backing voices, bludgeoning guitar licks and a heart-squeezing middle eight – a brief moment of clarity resisting the rapidly closing-in walls of sound.
On one hand, it’s unfortunately clear that Bowie’s last musical touchstone is a mid-90’s Nine Inch Nails record. However, this displacement from the contemporary is a guilty pleasure. ‘Love Is Lost’ is the kind of melt in the mouth penny sweet that they just don’t make anymore, a Supermarket Sweep style dash through his back catalogue.
In contrast to the face-obscuring album cover, this is possibly Bowie at his most exposed. ‑ there are no alter egos’ masks to crouch behind; references to his father, solitude and mortality are embedded between the basslines. ‘Where Are We Now?’ could be Bowie’s ‘Hurt’, a melancholy meander down Berlin’sStraßen, morose vocals weighed down by a heavy heart filled to bursting. Despite the mercifully brief ‘Dancing Out In Space’, this isn’t the Starman drifting across the universe. ‑ this is Major Tom falling down to Earth, his career flashing before him, shutting his heavy eyelids and finally hitting the ground in the penultimate ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’.
This isn’t Bowie trying to make up for lost time, this is the sound of one of the greatest musicians alive crafting the album he wants to make. And not giving a damn what anyone thinks about it. Because he’s earned it. This is simultaneously Bowie at his bitterest and at his sweetest, it’s that mixed up whirl of flavours only he could create.
The Next Day’s biggest achievement is that it’s not the resurrection some critics have billed it – it spells out that Bowie’s magic never died at all, the sceptics buried him alive under the weight of his own legacy. Bowie’s not on his death bed, he’s not lost any will: this is the next chapter in an already legendary story – his, if you’ll excuse the pun, golden years.