David Bowie - maybe more than any other artist of the last 40 years - has always had a knack for sensing the prevailing spirit in the air and riding it with musical precision. From his early acoustic days as a folk tinkerer to his gender-bending rock theater in the ’70s to pre-punk and eventually Top 40 in the ’80s, he has taken a variety of genres to new places. Sure, any artist that daring is likely to make a misstep here or there, but Bowie hits more than he misses. On his latest record, The Next Day, his first in a decade, Bowie not only hits, he crushes.
Bowie, who turned 66 earlier this year, suffered from a heart attack in 2004. Having missed out on his first son’s life while defining the ’70s and ’80s, this time he decided to lay low, heal, invest in his family and observe life and culture moving past him. Artists like Bowie, however, never stop seeing. Few, though, return after a decade with some of the best work of their career.
There are musical nods to every Bowie era on The Next Day, from Space Oddity to Let’s Dance, all presented with the perfect balance between accessibility and adventure. The songs absolutely shine. The attention to detail, the complex but catchy instrumental arrangements and the big-budget, big-studio, old-school production of veteran Bowie ringleader Tony Visconti remind me of some of the biggest records of all time. In the full context of the album even the piano ballad “Where Are We Now?” becomes subversive in its own right. We’ve arrived, it seems to suggest, but is this really all there is?
Lyrically, Bowie is as mysterious as ever. From the opening title track’s story of an evil and abusive priest to songs about a PTSD-addled soldier who would rather get high than “training these guns on those men in the sand,” this is dark stuff. But there is a significantly different flavor to the gothic tones here than was present in his decadent ’70s material. Whereas those images of apocalypse, mayhem and death were futuristic, imaginative and theoretical, this stuff sounds personal. Bowie has stared down death and realized something important about what really matters about life. There is a persistent echo of hope bouncing off his cavern walls.
These are the musings of a man who has clawed his way to fame and success only to find it unsatisfying. He mocks celebrity - or the spirits behind it - on the ridiculously catchy “The Stars Are Out Tonight.” He contemplates a school shooter on “Valentine’s Day.” He sings about blood-soaked graveyards, dancing in space and, maybe, generational sin? On “Heat,” a very Ziggy-inspired trip, he contemplates personal failure, doubt and fear as he repeats the line, “My father ran the prison.” I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly what he means, but I will admit that my heart stirs with this song. My father ran a prison too, but I escaped.
It’s rare that one can listen intently to an album over 30 times and still feel like there is more to discover. Bowie splatters the dots and lets us connect them. His world, as distorted as it got, has always been presided over by a sense of personified morality that transcends cultural fads. More than at any time in the past I feel a sense of purpose and intent here. This is, after all, the man who led a packed Wembly Stadium in a no-joke recitation of The Lord’s Prayer in the middle of a tribute to Queen’s Freddie Mercury. I’ve long suspected that there is more to Bowie’s spirituality than meets the eye. The Next Day continues to provoke those suspicions in the best possible ways.