Bowie Ends His Silence With A Big Bang

There’s a story, maybe apocryphal, that when Richard Nixon asked Zhou Enlai what he thought of the French Revolution, he replied, “It’s too soon to tell.” May we thus dare venture an opinion on Bowie’s The Next Day — that it’s not just the best thing he’s done since 1979’s Lodger, but may in fact be the most wholly satisfying album of his entire career — without having to wait 200 years to know for sure?  After a solid week of listening to it streamed through the iTunes Store, we’ll take our chances.

To place what an unexpected pleasure it is to listen to The Next Day, it helps to remember that the last time listening to Bowie made us grin from ear to ear was in the climactic scene in Inglourious Basterds, as Shosanna prepares to burn the theater down, and Tarrantino cribbed from the terrible movie Cat People to play Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” as the soundtrack to imminent conflagration. It’s not a particularly good song, though by the early ’80s, it seems like it was about as exciting as Bowie could be.  Yet in the context of Tarrantino’s movie, it was hilarious, and gave us a jolt.  But it was also a sad reminder of how much Bowie really mattered to us in the 1970s — during that string of pearls that began with Hunky Dory and did not end until his final fling with Eno in Lodger.

The return of Bowie to relevance and greatness reminds us, actually, of how exciting it was in 1997 to hear Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind.  Good Lord, we thought, as it came on the radio, he still has it, little knowing that Dylan would go on to create at least two albums that rank with anything he did in the ’60s.  And so we hope it is with Bowie, that upon his return at this level of excellence, as a 66-year old, post-heart attack senior citizen, he can keep producing at the level of The Next Day.

Imagine what it would be like if the Rolling Stones came back, right now, with an album as good as Exile On Main Street.  They won’t — they can’t — because for all their narcissism they don’t take themselves seriously enough.  Bowie does, though, clearly.  If he never produces another record, having produced The Next Day, he will have redeemed three decades of subpar performance, capped by a Rip Van Winkle disappearance and return.

When it was announced in January that Bowie was putting out a new record, and the single “Where Are We Now?” was released, we were underwhelmed.  It sounded like something cribbed from the Berlin Trio — the albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger — that he produced with Eno as collaborator and helmsman.  In context on the album, however, “Where Are We Now” is really great.  Next up comes “Valentine,” which is as pop-chart worthy as anything on the overtly commercial Let’s Dance, and if it had been put out prior to February 14th, would have been playing everywhere.  That Bowie chose to reintroduce himself with the more somber, less catchy “Where Are We Now” shows how important his return really is for him.  This record is not about scoring a hit.  It’s about reasserting his claims to greatness.

Most of The Next Day would sound completely at home on a compilation of unreleased tracks from the period beginning with Station To Station.  He even has Earl Slick playing lead!  What is better about the new album than even albums like Heroes is how well the melodies coalesce, how little he seems to strain, how natural his singing is, even at this age.  

The Next Day is the return of a master to a form that we never realized he hadn’t quite yet hit.  How strange it is to introduce, say, a teenager to Bowie and want to start here, not with Ziggy Stardust.  200 years from now, when the verdict really is in on Bowie, we bet the rock historians still start with Ziggy and Alladin Sane, because of course they will gravitate to Bowie as theatrical persona and performance art.  But if you really want to vector in on Bowie’s peak musical performance, we find it bizarre to say, we think you’ll start here.

4 Responses to “Bowie Ends His Silence With A Big Bang”

  1. Well, this is a positive review. Glad you took your chances and wrote it. I can’t wait to listen to the album.
    –JW

  2. It really is a surprise and a delight.

  3. […] bought the new David Bowie album, The Next Day, today and, when I went looking for a video from the album to post, I came across this one from […]

  4. […] also not any of the albums that from 1980 on devalued what Bowie had done in the ’70s.  When The Next Day came out, we were filled with gratitude, and admiration, and joy that we could listen to late-phase Bowie […]

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