[ISO / Columbia, 2013]
Is there anyone else in the modern musical sphere who carries the same weight as David Bowie? David Byrne has never put out a solo album that compares to his work with Talking Heads. Paul McCartney is a revered live performer, but mostly because he performs Beatles songs and “Live And Let Die” at his shows. Nick Cave releases consistently great music to an audience that has never expanded beyond the underground. David Bowie, on the other hand, consistently reinvented himself from the 60s to the 80s, staying abreast of international trends and always remaining contemporary, all the while finding great side men and writing excellent melodies that made his songs more than just trends, but landmarks. Sure, the 90s were a flat period of searching for a sound and his last two albums were faithful rehashes of his most celebrated work, but nevertheless the past ten years have seemed lacking without David Bowie as a constant force.
So when Bowie quietly recorded then announced The Next Day, it felt like a moment: the Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust or that dude in Berlin was coming back to save us from an increasingly confused musical landscape. And, you know what? He does a bang up job. The Next Day follows the path he re-navigated on Reality and Outside, with one crucial difference: better songs. Here, Bowie seems to suggest that the best thing he can do at this point, where everyone can hear every single piece of music ever recorded with ease and where trends live and die in the course of a week, is to write Bowie songs to the best of his ability. So sure, he’s not creating a dubstep/K-pop hybrid that drives the zeitgeist forward. Instead, he’s recording “Valentine’s Day”, a song where he inhabits the vocal sound of his London era recordings as he sings an upbeat track about a school shooting. Or he dives into a grimy murk on “Dirty Boys”, running around a grinding rhythm and horn blasts reminiscent of the Birthday Party. He doesn’t attempt to sound current (except on “(You Will) Set the World on Fire”, which is eerily reminiscent of“Sixteen Saltine” by Jack White.) Instead, he sounds like prime Bowie, and he pulls off that trick better than anyone.
What Bowie does here is a trick he’s only pulled off once before, on Scary Monster (and Super Creeps,) which is recording a capital B Bowie album and succeeding fully. He doesn’t seek out Eno, doesn’t dive into white-eyed soul or jungle records, he doesn’t cover Pixies songs. Instead, he writes what we think of as Bowie songs: art-damaged, melodic rock songs about dark, terrifying moments and making them click. Why this works so well is the implication it makes: that, when you can be anything in the world and sound like literally anyone, the best thing a musical act can do in this day and age is to sound like themselves. It doesn’t hurt that this is the best Bowie album since Scary Monsters, and a spectacular return from the most continually important and spectacular musician still kicking.
Bowie, please tour.