The middle aged music critic at The Daily Telegraph says David Bowie is back with another 'amazing' album. The Independent’s near-retirement aged theatre critic follows suit, and Q magazine say little more and give Bowie a 36 page spread. On Music Review Database, Bowie is treated like every other artist. We're not influenced by Bowie's lack of PR advertisement, or by how Bowie was 'once a major influence'. This is a man that’s never challenged by music critics, the Alex Ferguson of music. Knowing Bowie has done little to promote his 24th studio album The Next Day is upsetting. I'm not one to comment on album artwork as it shouldn't reflect people's overall opinion of the content, but look at it. Seriously, look at it... What were they thinking? Where are we now?
Knowing Bowie's history with strong openers, it wasn’t a surprise to notice the self-titled track is a strong contender for the best on the album. A strong progression and build-up with Bowie's layered vocal, the bass and the drums, however I’m not convinced by the electric guitar playing handled by session musician Gerry Leonard. Bowie sings: "Here I am, not quite dying," on the opening track, a lovely piece of imagery for all the pensioners out there. "Dirty Boys" has poor electric guitar work and the saxophone doesn’t offer anything. This is a bland Bowie track with predictable instrumentation, the sort of 90s Bowie that goes nowhere. And as the slow saxophone solo ends, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" begins. A track that hasn't been mastered at all well. The guitar needs to be louder, the bass quieter and Bowie's vocal louder. We've already taken a listen to this track and I wasn't impressed. After countless listens, my opinion hasn't changed, bar the string arrangements by long term Bowie producer Tony Visconti.
Bowie announced The Next Day on his birthday in January, releasing "Where Are We Now?" as a little treat. Deep synthesizers and an excellent build-up only pointed signs at a Berlin-trilogy return with Brian Eno's masterful skills aiding Bowie's aged styles. It turns out that Bowie didn't need Eno, Robert Fripp et al, he can fend for himself with session musicians, like when he successfully orchestrated Iggy Pop's best solo album The Idiot. As pre-release single, "Where Are We Now?" served as an exciting revitalisation of Bowie's music career after a 10 year break. It has an eerie feel with reverb on the percussion and a thumping final third with the strings and drums coming together alongside Bowie's remembrance of Berlin in his new found aged voice.
The Next Day peaks with wailing guitars and the Hunk Dory-esque structure of "Valentine's Day". The darker and ethereal tracks work in Bowie's favour, especially with such musical skill as the session musicians Bowie has for The Next Day. "If You Can See Me" has a great first minute, before becoming somewhat messy in its progressions and instrumentation. "Love Is Lost" highlights the synthesizers of Bowie's 80s past and "Dancing Out In Space" progresses with a decent bass riff and relaxing percussion pattern. Other than three / four select tracks, The Next Day isn't an exciting album. The percussion on many occasions becomes regurgitated and too obvious. Bowie's vocals never match the bass / percussion and the electric guitars, as much as I’d love to compliment, just don't offer anything more than simple accompaniment. One exception to this is the 11th track "How Does The Grass Grow?" where the electric guitar owns the introduction and the bass / percussion go hand in hand for the reminding two minutes before the electric guitar frenzy.
Intellectual name-dropping on "I'd Rather Be High" doesn't make up for the 90s-esque hip-hop lyricism of its chorus and repetition of the title: "I'd rather be high." All signs of Bowie's tender age of 66 and maturity fail when he sings the god awful bridge: "I'm seventeen and my looks can prove it, I'm so afraid that I will lose it. I'd rather smoke and phone my ex, be pleading for some teenage sex, yeah." The fact that Bowie is in fact 66 should prevent him from rhyming the words 'ex' and 'teenage sex'. He's getting older and puts this in his lyrics, with the cunning: "I'm seventeen and my looks can prove it," pointing to his Botox. It's an interesting track, but doesn't quite work.
"(You Will) Set The World On Fire" has a promising introduction, but the vocals fail to live up to my expectations. Whether or not your expectations are lowered because this is the 'great Bowie' is impartial to my opinion. I expect better and Bowie can definitely do better than this. Visconti plays bass on this track, whereas Bowie's usual bassist Gail Ann Dorsey takes backing vocals. The following track "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" is a massive improvement over the instrumentals on The Next Day. It has exciting string arrangements and impressive drumming by Zachary Alford, who gives a little nod to "Five Years" in the closing 35 seconds. The melody seems to be lifted from "Hallelujah"; however this track does change over its four and a half minute course.
Bowie's 25th album ends with "Heat", the 14th track that surprisingly follows the closing nature of "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die". On this track, Bowie plays his usual heavily effected acoustic guitar among string arrangements and synthesizers matching ambience and soundscapes. Bowie is influenced by Scott Walker, and Walker's later avant-garde works come to mind when listening to The Next Day's closer.
The Next Day concludes Bowie's career. From the glorious strings on "Where Are We Now?" to the cynical "I'd Rather Be High", Bowie captures the listener’s imagination and delivers what's been on his mind for the past 10 years. It's not a perfect album in the slightest, the mastering of this album is generally poor, and certain tracks shouldn't belong, such as the dud "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" and the incredibly average "Boss of Me". At 53 minutes, The Next Day is a big gulp, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, without two / three of the unnecessary tracks and this album would be among Bowie's best since Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). The album cover is a shot in a foot and a sign of Bowie's attitude towards his perception by fans and more importantly critics. To me it's a signal that Bowie is calling it quits. He's put a simple square and text (probably created on Microsoft Paint) on top of "Heroes", his best album. The masterpiece of the Berlin-trilogy and Bowie’s nod to his Berlin days on “Where Are We Now?” adds to my judgement of Bowie ending a strong career. The Next Day caused excitement up and down the country and across the world. When the 53 minutes landed in my ears, it never fitted. It wasn't intended to stick - my gut instinct tells me that Bowie's 24th studio album is good, but nothing compared to the golden years. My gut tells you that, the middle aged reviewers may tell you differently.