David Bowie’s low visibility in recent years led to rumors he might be dying, or simply too bored to record again. At some point, he got over his ennui, if that’s what it was, and began working on The Next Day, his first album in a decade and easily one of the best high-profile pop records of late, no offense to Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and the other middle-of-the-road regulars on “alternative” radio.
The Next Day isn’t so much about Bowie making a comeback as coming to terms with mortality, a subject he explored decades ago through Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and his other exotic self-inventions. He’s working the same territory again but without the masks, which would look pretty silly on a 66-year-old heart attack survivor. In spirit, the new album is reminiscent of Time Out of Mind (1997), the great record Bob Dylan made when it seemed he was all used up.
Most of Bowie’s new songs are sardonic, harshly melodic reminders of his enduring impact on mainstream culture. (Someone should write a book about the cognitive dissonance of all those homophobic, blue-collar corner boys who fell under Bowie’s spell back in the days when music critics were introducing the word “androgynous” to Middle America.)
The dark but jaunty-sounding title song sets the tone — Here I am/Not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree. “Dirty Boys,” with its rude bass sax and brittle guitar, is a mock-sinister salute to predatory misfits. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” imagines pop stars as otherworldly creatures who take a hostile, voyeuristic interest in normal people. (In the video, the stars stalk Bowie and Tilda Swinton, playing a normal couple in a supermarket.)
None of Bowie’s conceits would matter if he didn’t have a gift for transforming self-obsession into wildly theatrical material that rings true on an emotional level — old songs like “Heroes” and new ones like “I’d Rather Be High,” which has a martial beat and a beautifully transcendent chorus sung from the point of view of a reluctant young soldier: I’d rather be high/I’d rather be flying/I’d rather be dead/Or out of my head/Than training these guns on those men in the sand/I’d rather be high.
The latter song has been playing in my head for more than a week, since I landed a temp job in a corporate setting where I have to fake being normal, not that I’m fooling anyone.
The Next Day includes 13 other new tracks, but you get the idea. A few are less than stellar, but the album as a whole is, yes, better than anything Bowie has done since Scary Monsters (1980). Even some of my fellow geezers might like it.
Footnote: Speaking of supermarkets, I was in the local Super Fresh last weekend reaching for a can of frijoles negros when “Subterranean Homesick Blues” came on the store radio. Don’t steal, don’t lift/Twenty years of schoolin’/And they put you on the day shift. I can think of only a few songwriters whose ironies resonate more deeply with each passing year. Dylan is one, and Bowie is another.
One more: Buy Bowie’s Heathen (2002), too, if you missed it. It’s a good one that got lost in the shuffle.