I confess that when I heard second single The Stars I was worried that we were going to get another Reality-type album of bland, mid-paced rockers with obtuse lyrics. But not this time. Thankfully, The Stars is the weakest song on the album, and even then it stands up well enough.
The songs themselves are, for the most part, fantastic. Bowie seems to have found his mojo again, lyric-wise. While Heathen and Reality tended to be lyrically vague, The Next Day sees Bowie once again telling stories with song in a way he has not done since his early glam rock days. In fact, the best of this album’s songs recall his work on albums like Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World, while not sounding like copies of what he has done in the past. There are parts where you wish he had put together a more adventurous band than what is practically the same group of musicians he had twelve years ago, and one or two songs suffer for it. But for the most part, the album is eclectic, and succeeds in breaking out of the mould of its two predecessors with more of a willingness to take musical risks.
How good is The Next Day? I give it four stars out of five. It’s definitely his best album since Earthling, and if you don’t count the timeless title track, it’s probably even better than “Heroes”, the cover of which it plagiarises. There’s a run of five songs in the middle of the album, starting with Where Are We Now, which are the equal of his best work. While I won’t do a full track-by track, some of my favourites are:
The Next Day
A barnstorming opening track, sung with passion and venom. The melody and keyboards have hints of songs from his Berlin tryptich in there, especially What in the World, Beauty and the Beast, and Repetition. “Here I am! I’m not quite dead!…”
Bowie was always a good saxaphone player, and he plays up the sleaze with it on this song. It stomps along ominously, and the funk guitar recalls Fame. The only pity is that the song sounds like it is dying for a middle eight, or some other form of dramatic conclusion. Alas, it fades out after only two verses.
This is just a classic mid-tempo song, with a winning melody and a touch of glam to it. It would fit very easily on Aladdin Sane. The lyrics are playful and fun, describing “Valentine” and “his tiny hands” poised to confound the world. And this will piss my girlfriend off, but sorry honey, it’s way cooler than Paul McCartney’s recent Valentine song.
If You Can See Me
Probably the most musically “out there” song on the album, a frantic duet between Bowie and his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey. It sounds like something off Earthling – an attempt to play drum n bass with live drums.
I’d Rather Be High
Another piece of glam, and the best song on the album, hands down. The chorus just soars like all those classic Bowie melodies do, so good you’ll want to cry, and you can sing along to it. Lyrically it deals with the tragedy of young men being sent off to war in the most direct way. “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.”
Boss of Me
More honking saxaphone, another winning chorus, a more soulful song. “Who’d have ever thought of it? / Who’d have ever dreamed? / That a small town girl like you / Would be the boss of me?”
All synthy and atmospheric, Bowie closes the album with what could easily be a sequel to Hunky Dory’s The Bewlay Brothers as he sings once more of being “trapped between the rocks”. “I am a seer, but I am a liar”. A stunning end to the best comeback album ever.