Bowie Sonically And Thematically Adventurous On 'Next Day'
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 22:03
David Bowie truly is an artist belonging to all time, by power of a voice unique to each age. His cryptic political metaphors and songs of mystic love are timeless as the stars, yet Bowie continually renews them, making them anew with each era. The Next Day marks more than just the return of Ziggy Stardust from a 10-year hiatus—it’s stands as an act of restoration, revitalizing the sense of rugged individuality and unapologetic lyrical prowess Bowie’s music has long stood for.
“The Next Day,” the album’s title track, fashionably begins the work—it’s a twangy musical zinger laced with country flair. The imagery behind “The Next Day” holds itself in a staggering character, as poetic as it is putrid. Bowie speaks of “gormless crowds” whipping a man in the streets, corrupt priests, a man not quite dying in a tree. And as Bowie cuttingly remarks, “They can’t get enough of that doomsday song,” we are reminded that Bowie’s lyrics, although often operating on celestial nuance, are not written in a vacuum. The Next Day is Bowie’s portrait of the now, speaking to the great paradox of our day—this phenomenon of human beings, seemingly high-minded and spiritually connected creatures, continually seeking out ways to oppress each other and themselves.
“Dirty Boys” runs its roots deep into a pool of some of Bowie’s earliest rock influences. It works through a sinister tonality, coyly pairing the bellow of horns with whopping guitar. The song describes a place something like “Tobacco Road,” a strange land where “the die is cast and you have no choice.” Running around the dirty boys, Bowie reckons, “You’ve got to learn to hold your tongue.” In the modernist poetic tradition of T.S. Eliot, “Dirty Boys” is a portrait of dystopia, namely the United States, in which deep-rooted beliefs ironically seem to dictate an ad hoc sense of morality.
Bowie’s songwriting grandly functions as bridge building of a sort, a humanist effort to more perfectly connect the human being to the universe. Earlier albums, such as Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, quite overtly addressed issues of aging, mortality, and human sexuality in the context of celestial bodies. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is The Next Day’s greatest contribution to this tradition. It’s a tale of two lovers, whose love has the capacity to bridge the gap between the earthly and divine. In this mystical moon-age ballad, Bowie describes “We live closer to the earth / Nearer to the heavens / The stars are never far away / Stars are out tonight.” Through a connection with the cosmos, humans can more perfectly relate themselves to the earth—this is the great spiritual prescription of Bowie’s legacy embodied in one song.
Never skating far from his foundation in psychedelic and protest music, Bowie presents a modern portrait of youth disillusioned by war in “I’d Rather Be High.” It’s impossible to understand Bowie’s vision outside of the context of his ever-eminent contemporary, John Lennon. “I’d Rather Be High” reverberates with the crucial social frequencies sounding in Lennon’s The Plastic Ono Band and Imagine (“I’d rather be high / I’d rather be flying / I’d rather be dead / Or out of my head / Than training these guns on those men in the sand.”) Importantly, those “men in the sand” most certainly refers to the people of the Middle East—Bowie explains much of our disgust with government and failed tradition of democratization as a continuation of Vietnam-era politics. The album ends with “Heat,” a ghostly piece, ringing with the intonations of gospel music. “My father ran the prison,” Bowie repeats through the song, adding “I can only love you / By hating him more.” To Bowie, the promise of the future is inseparably linked with the rejection of the oppressive forces of the past. Following such thought, the claim of The Next Day is a hopeful one—only recognizing the avarice of the past, we realize the goodness of the future. In this way, all Bowie’s work has been an arrow, pointing to the next day.