His first album in ten years, David Bowie’s The Next Day is mysterious, often dark, and probably the best thing he’s put out in a long time. At 66 years old, Bowie is long past his Berlin years of the ’70s, and the blunt album art almost humorously acknowledges that by pasting a white square over the cover for 1977’s Heroes.
The title track sets the tone for a sonically diverse album that may draw some to the conclusion that Bowie has become a bit of a pessimist. The guitar and drums are upbeat and he sings the words strongly with an inflection that almost sounds optimistic, but the lines are gloomy and possibly self-referential: “Here I am / Not quite dead / My body left to rot in a hollow tree.” The threat of death and being hanged also lie in the lyrics alongside religious allusions to the misconduct of priests. These disparate themes would be confusing even if they weren’t set to a dance-rock tune. The Next Day is a complex and mysterious album, and the title track simply commands you to “Listen,” as the rest of the album unfolds.
Following the example of the title track, the rest offers more odd juxtapositions. “Valentine’s Day” never directly mentions a school shooting, but it’s implied as Bowie mentions a list of “who’s to go,” which includes “Teddy,” “Judy,” “the teachers and the football stars.” And the ominous line “He’s got something to say / It’s Valentine’s day,” is made all the more unsettling by backup vocals that cheer, “Hey, hey, yeah, woo, woo.” “If You Can See Me” also features some lines that allude to violence, but the swirling synths, driving drum beat, and distorted multi-tracked vocals are just as disorienting as the puzzling lyrics.
Offering a respite from the anger, the contemplative, mid-album, down-tempo rock poetry of “Where Are We Now?” transitions the album into melancholy, but it’s lined with a slight tinge of hope. It’s the most clearly self-referential song, recalling memories of his years in Berlin. At moments like this, The Next Day seems to be a self-reflective album, but then moments like “I’d Rather Be High” show that these potential self-reflections might have less to do with an aging Bowie and more to do with impersonal institutions. The song may seem like a stoner anthem, but it’s closer to an anti-war protest as Bowie takes on the persona of a youth who would rather be high “than training these guns on those men in the sand.”
The next to last song on the album, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” features reflections on a degraded world paired with gospel backup vocals. Bowie sings, “Oblivion shall own you / Death alone shall love you / I hope you feel so lonely you could die.” The “you” he refers to isn’t clear. And considering the grandness and ambiguity of the twelve preceding tracks, pointing the listener toward an object that all this swirling anger, melancholy, and occasional glimmer of hope is directed at would be reductive. The Next Day’s obscurities make this a haunting and challenging return to form for Bowie.
Follow the jump to watch the music video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”…