Despite the fact that the first thing Google offers when I type his name into the search bar is “Robert Christgau is an idiot,” I’ll defer to his judgment. On 2002’s Heathen, one of the few post-1980 David Bowie albums that got quite a fair bit of critical success, he writes, “The ‘Bowie’s back’ huzzahs that accompany every one of this music mill’s new releases beg the question of what he’s back to and from.”
I really don’t want to waste (my own and your) time with a collage made from copy-and-pasting the overly-romantic statements of every publication paid to promote The Next Day, but reading any one of them, you could practically see that the reviewers are sporting hard-ons and hearing aids (or lack thereof; both CBS News calling it “Bowie’s strongest work to date” or RollingStone‘s Rob Sheffield calling “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” a fusion of “”Heroes”” (which he spelt wrong) and “Space Oddity” are statements that suggest total deafness).
Of course, the only difference between this and Heathen is that David Bowie’s mortality was in question (which led to some funny song titles like “Is David Bowie Dying?”) after a backstage collapse in 2004 that resulted in surgery and an indefinite hiatus. This is partially the reason why The Next Day was met with such unanimous acclaim; the world needs David Bowie because we don’t have a Superman (well, at least, not until Man of Steel comes out). The Next Day dropped in our laps so suddenly and out of the blue; the amazing thing about it really was how David Bowie and his team of musicians managed to keep this thing a secret for so long. The people who are claiming The Next Day to be “the best thing since (Heathen / 1.Outside / Let’s Dance / Scary Monsters)” are not exactly wrong, but it’s as useless a statement as saying “m b v is the best thing My Bloody Valentine have done since Loveless.” The thing is, David Bowie hasn’t done anything interesting since 1980, really, except for his role as Nikola Tesla in 2006’s The Prestige, but no one recognized him with the moustache, Christopher Nolan’s wacky plot twists, and the fact that he was alongside the younger Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman (and for the heterosexuals who don’t suffer blood loss upon seeing David Bowie, there was also Scarlett Johansson to distract).
The thing you have to remember is that David Bowie is sixty-six years old, and while his good looks have been holding out, the same cannot be said about his vocals, which means you’ll be lucky to get any semblance of a melody half as good as “Life on Mars?” or any other of the Bowie greats. Elsewhere, Tony Visconti is even older, and while the man injected life into some of David Bowie’s classic albums (including the one which the cover of The Next Day blasphemously erases), he doesn’t do much here. Like Heathen, which Visconti also helped produce, there’s a conscious and detracting effort to elevate these songs beyond their rock status and into the stratosphere of the pretentiously termed “art rock.” Which means you’re bound to see quite a few instruments thrown into any one of these tracks. But sometimes, it’s not enough; “Dirty Boys” trudges slowly along and not even a baritone saxophone can save it (the other track that uses that instrument is “Boss Of Me,” which fares better because of a better arrangement). Decades earlier, Brian Eno would’ve been there to add a much-needed synth line to either provide the melody or else to ground the guitar, but apparently, no one on the team seems to know how to handle of one of those instruments, so they stick to the classics. Thus, The Next Day shows its age, both in its instrumentation and Bowie’s vocals.
But because we’re loyal fans, we look elsewhere, don’t we? Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal sums up the lyrics to The Next Day well, ““Love Is Lost” observes a troubled, perhaps suicidal 22-year-old girl whose “fear is as old as the world.” It builds to a clenched-fist climax with Bowie ruefully pleading “oh, what have you done?” “Valentine’s Day”, meanwhile, is a Ziggy-style romp… about a tiny-faced school shooter; “How Does the Grass Grow?” offers a quasi-sentimental graveyard tale in which Bowie quips, “Remember the dead/ They were so great/ Some of them”; “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” wishes comeuppance upon a heartless Cold War assassin. You get the point. It may very well be his bleakest set of lyrics to date, words that don’t glorify death as much as they detail its cruel inevitability throughout history.” Now, while these topics are all well and good, it seems to me to be another way to push “rock” into “art rock.” David Bowie has never needed to do this, and while you could point out to me that “”Heroes”” was indeed about the Berlin Wall, it never explicitly said so, and as far as I’m concerned, that song could’ve been about two lovers who had to overcome any wall – physical or otherwise.
Which makes the opener one of the few successes on the album, one where there’s no search to impress us lyrically or instrumentally. It’s just a rock song, and the only lyric to really pick out is the repeated “Here I am, not quite dying,” a response to all of our questions in the last decade. Elsewhere and similarly, first single “Where Are We Now?” abandons the pretensions that pervade most of the rest of the album, opting for an extremely simple lyrical approach done through repetition, “As long as there’s …” “… Where are we now?”, and it’s one of the few times on the album where David Bowie’s voice is given room to move, regardless that there’s barely any movement to be had. But despite a few highlights, which are way too few in-between a 14-track album, there are also duds to bring it down. “How Does the Grass Grow” features what might be the album’s best solo but it’s sandwiched between 3 minutes of utter annoyance. “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” seeks to reconnect us with David Bowie’s glam rock days, with only a hook, a riff and little else.
Finally, while early 2013 might’ve seen the return of many once-great artists, apparently, it would rather be known as the year of astonishing bad album covers, a list of which, The Next Day definitely belongs. Apparently, according to cover artist, Jonathan Barnbrook, The Next Day’s cover is “about the spirit of great pop or rock music which is ‘of the moment’, forgetting or obliterating the past.” I assume he means for us to listen to The Next Day as if David Bowie were a new artist, not as if David Bowie were a man who delivered classic upon classic so many years ago. That in itself is a statement on the quality of music here.