Let's start by saying that I'm not a music reviewer. I'm a musician, a music lover, a student of music, a recording engineer, a record producer, and have a career in a field that provides creative tools to fellow musical people like myself. But the act of criticizing someone else's artistic output isn't my idea of fun, so I tend to avoid spewing my opinions on music or art of any sort.
Instead, let's think of me as a well-informed communicator, and a person who is as well acquainted with the music of David Bowie as any good 30-year-long fanboy could be. Today I'm here to tell you about my reactions to Bowie's 24th studio album, The Next Day. I'll do this while listening to the album. By the way, at least for now, the entire album is streaming for free on iTunes (I assume this will last until the album is actually released, which is March 12 here in the USA).
Sound fun? Listen along with me here if you want, and let's go over each new Bowie song. Whee!
1. The Next Day
A snare crack, and then... holy shit! Did I put on the right album? These dissonant guitars and the dry, tight production just pulled me straight back to Scary Monsters or perhaps Lodger. Just the act of listening to music by David Bowie that I've never heard before is thrilling... to have it sound like my favorite era of Bowie's output is a huge bonus. The opening title track is punchy and has a great chorus. I hope the rest of the album is as cool as this.
2. Dirty Boys
Oh man. This is great. There's something about hearing a baritone sax that lends the Bowie feel like nothing else. More dissonant guitars (loving that). There's something "Fame"-like about this. It's not as strong as the first track, but even a mediocre Bowie tune beats almost anything else one can listen to.
3. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
This is cool. So lush. Bowie's 66-year-old voice isn't as powerful as what we used to get from him, but the aged quality is like a wine that's mellowed into something supremely unique. The guitars are ultra tasty on this track. It's less adventurous than the first couple of tunes, and the lyric is more literal than I prefer in my Bowie. I see why Bowie chose to put this song (with its rather easy AOR digestibility) out as the second single. The video is phenomenal, by the way. Tilda Swinton was basically born to act with Bowie, I'm convinced.
4. Love Is Lost
The whole vibe of this track is haunting, even while staying punchy and cool. I love the drum sounds! I love the organ! The guitars! And what a fantastic lyric -- bitter and accusatory. The vocal is so expressive. And then, after droning along in Bb minor for a couple of minutes, there's a killer key change to Ab minor in the bridge. Amazing. Only Bowie can pull that off in this way.
5. Where Are We Now?
This was the first single released, back in January when none of us had any idea that David was unleashing a whole album of new stuff. I really liked it when it first hit, but was slightly (and mistakenly, as it turns out) concerned that the whole album would be elegiac and nostalgic like this lush ballad. It's deeply melancholy in both performance and the lyrical references to Bowie's period in Berlin, and Bowie probably sounds older on this track than any other on this album (which, in context, seems entirely appropriate). The last minute of the song, with the cadenced snare drum, is overwhelmingly beautiful.
6. Valentine's Day
After being lulled into an introspective fugue state by the end of "Where Are We Now", a little drum pattern awakens me from my reverie, and... fucking wow! Now I'm in some amazing combination of "All the Young Dudes" (which, of course, Bowie wrote for Mott the Hoople) and several tracks from Ziggy Stardust. I just love the glammy feel, the low and gritty sound of the guitars, and the story (told very obliquely, in classic Bowie style) of the kid who's going to shoot the teachers and football stars at his school. Bowie's voice sounds amazing here. This one is going to stick in my head for awhile, I can tell already.
7. If You Can See Me
Well, I already thought this was a very good album. Now, with a heart-pumping jungle beat and Gail Ann Dorsey's voice howling at me like a heavenly banshee, it just became an incredibly great album. So many great things about this adventurous track. Tony Visconti brings an incredible vibe as a producer (especially on David's amazing vocals here), and the detailed sonic exploration happening here is as contemporary as it gets. Many people are talking about the musical nostalgia of The Next Day, understandably, but this song, to me, is music of the future as opposed to the past. The lydian modal feel and minor 2nd transitions are killing me as a songwriter. Killing me because I can't do that. But I'm glad David does.
8. I'd Rather Be High
After that last song, I'm fine with the somewhat more straightforward feel of "I'd Rather Be High". I love the drum rhythm and the guitar motif, regardless. Oh, the chorus is great. So, so great. Oh, this is really enjoyable. The anti-war lyrical message is well done without being heavy handed. Great, great, great stuff.
9. Boss of Me
Dammit, why can't I write an intro like this? Oh yeah, because I'm not Bowie. I forgot. Much like "Dirty Boys", the presence of a farty baritone sax warms the cockles of my heart. Tony Levin does a couple of tasty bass triplets in each verse that demand multiple listenings. I like the lyrical theme. And oh God, the bridge.
10. Dancing Out in Space
Hmm. This is nice. I think it might be this album's "Modern Love". Big drum beat making me bounce in my seat a bit. The chorus is naughty and fun. The vocal harmonies, in an odd interval, is something that if anyone else did, it would sound like a mistake. The return to the verse part is shockingly pretty in a little pop tune like this. Of course, how can things go wrong when Bowie goes into space?
11. How Does the Grass Grow?
Interesting. There's a bit of a "China Girl meets Fashion" thing happening here. Nothing wrong with that. I'm smiling at the "Apache" ya-ya-ya-ya chorus. I like it. Oh Jesus, the bridge. Kill me. Just kill me.
12. (You Will) Set the World On Fire
Ah, a reverb-filled rock guitar riff. So far, this is probably the most safe and pedestrian track on this album, and the one I'll be re-playing the least. Bowie sets a high standard with his experimentalist compositions, and it's somewhat jarring to have this rather predictable tune in the midst of an otherwise mind-blowing album.
13. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die
Immediate chills down my spine at the dreamy 6/8 feel that pulls me straight back to "Five Years" from Ziggy. The recording is sparse and beautiful. Bowie's voice is godlike here. This song could fit in with any of the most revered ballads of the last 50 years. David's operatic yet honest voice here is beyond compare. And the outro... more chills.
After the greatness of the penultimate song, I'm a little leery of what the final track will bring. And... whoa. Just whoa. I just got transported to some distant galaxy. He's only singing two notes: F# and G#. But there's a lot of amazing things happening around this chant-like, hypnotic poem. If it's reminiscent of anything in the past, it's the dirge of the instrumentals on his Berlin trilogy. And yet, like the rest of The Next Day, it approaches the song from a wholly new direction.