THERE WAS SOMETHING DELIGHTFULLY PERVERSE – THE TAIL SPITTING OUT THE SNAKE – IN THE WAY THAT DAVID BOWIE’S NEW ALBUM WAS ANNOUNCED.
The complete lack of a fanfare in the all-seeing and all-knowing take-it-for-granted digital information age meant that January 8th’s surprise reveille was a bit of old-school sleight-of-hand that felt radically futuristic. Even only a headline knowledge of his career can reveal that Bowie has long had form for a touch of the old theatrical melodrama – go back a short forty years to see Ziggy pulling the plug on the Spiders from the stage of London’s Hammersmith Odeon, for instance.
Now that THE NEXT DAY has almost dawned (it’s released on Monday) it becomes apparent that subverting the past to get to the future is a methodology Bowie has filtered through all aspects of the project. From a sleeve that heroically defaces the familiar imagery of his iconic back catalogue to suggest everything before this moment was leading to it, to knowing nods at ownership of 45 golden years of peculiar sonics throughout its 14 songs (17 on a deluxe edition), the past is heavily utilised on his 24th studio album.
Whether torn down or stacked up, history is both treated and mistreated well: the spat-out lip-curl “… here I am, not quite dying…” in the title track’s rough garage collision of Tin Machine snarl and REALITY; the LOW-era harmonised snare beats of LOVE IS LOST’s hanging electro-wires; the YOUNG AMERICANS soul of VALENTINE’S DAY and YOU FEEL SO LONELY YOU COULD DIE; the misanthropic hangover shimmy of the stuttering DIRTY BOYS slamming a fist straight through BREAKING GLASS; the haunting “walking the dead” references to his Berlin era in the lyrics of first single WHERE ARE WE NOW?
IF YOU CAN SEE ME forces cop show instrumental motifs onto EARTHLING’s aggressive concrete jungle beats, DANCING OUT IN SPACE (the album’s only weak moment) is unrequited MODERN LOVE, and I’D RATHER BE HIGH sends the guitar riff from THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD falling to Earth through shuffling beat and melodies which manage to suggest both Lennon and Blur (their THINK TANK was a Bowie favourite) in the same phrase.
It’s actually two songs in before something approaching radio ease comes tumbling out of the white-hot noise – and even then it’s as disturbingly off-kilter as it is pleasurably urgent. The propulsive nightmare sci-fi of THE STARS (ARE OUT TONIGHT) is filled with an ASHES TO ASHES-like sense of dread and unease, though mid-register Bowie switches his alienated paranoid gaze away from himself and towards a legion of invading famous people who “watch from behind their shades” and “burn you with their radiant smiles, trap you with their beautiful eyes”. One cannot help but wonder if there’s some comment on the church of Scientology (“soaking up our primitive world”), as well as the more obvious cult of celebrity, being made. The album closes out with HEAT, an amalgam of OUTSIDE.1’s blankly melancholic art soundscapes and a brooding intensity not dissimilar to sections of SONS OF THE SILENT AGE.
THE NEXT DAY suggests Bowie has spent at least some of his own silent age, his ‘ten years off’, scavenging through the beautifully twisted spaceship wreckage of his long career, working out what each oddity means, and forming a sleek and gleaming new craft from them. It shines brightly as the starman hits warped factor 24. There’s a universe of life in the old moonage daydreamer yet.