The first single released from David Bowie’s first album in 10 years, “Where Are We Now?”, is an anomaly. It is gentler, slower and lighter than the other 13 songs on “The Next Day,” this musical chameleon’s return to rock ‘n’ roll.
Bowie and producer Tony Visconti, who helped shaped his sound in the 1970s as well as produce seven T. Rex records, have struck gold in creating a work that is modern and well-connected to the artist’s fabled sonic-past.
No matter where Bowie takes the music — and there are some moments where it seems headed to some off-putting territory — he finds a melodic hook to swing on. It’s an ability he used on “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger” and that experimental trilogy from the mid- to late 1970s is as much a reference point as the earlier costumed years of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane.” This alchemy is almost magical.
A deluxe edition adds three tracks to the collection and they, too, bear little resemblance to the palette of the main album, which stands as a strong cohesive work on its own, with Bowie in fine voice and his army of old friends — the guitarists Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick and David Torn, drummers Zachary Alford and Sterling Campbell, and bassists Gail Ann Dorsey and Tony Levin — behind him.
The release date for “The Next Day” (Iso/Columbia) is March 12.
“The Next Day”
“Here I am/not quite dying,” Bowie sings — with power and control — over a throbbing fat beat while the recording’s resonance falls in line with the sound of “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.” Like so many of the tracks, there is a guitar sound that echoes Bowie’s past, in this case, the sound of Carlos Alomar.
Throw the blues and Kurt Weill cabaret into a blender and add a slowly hammered rhythm to get this dirge. It’s as close as Bowie has come to emulating Tom Waits in phrasing, rhythm and a baritone sax that fattens the bottom end here. The lyrics suggest desperation: “When the sun goes down/and the die is cast/And you have no chance/We will run with the dirty boys.”
“The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”
A prime example of how Bowie can throw a twist into a song two-plus minutes in and make it melodically pleasant. He employs the urgency of “Young Americans” here in a song that truly becomes increasingly interesting as it progresses.
“Love Is Lost”
“Wave goodbye to Life without pain” he sings. Remember those rumors about Bowie having health issues? Despite them being rebuked, this is yet another example of an artist coming to grips with aging. Excellent use of organ and a steady monochromatic beat.
“Where Are We Now?”
The first song released from the album, it’s filled with hope and its tunefulness reminds me of the softer songs from his friend John Lennon on “Double Fantasy.”
Lyrically light, but that T. Rex sound is so engaging. Some Link Wray distortion to start ‘er off before heading into an acoustic guitar and wordless wall of female vocals. It’s a divine recording.
“If You Can See Me”
The one track that harkens to his more experimental phases, “If You Can See Me” revels in odd sounds, polyrhythms and skittering guitar lines. It’s likely to be the song that divides Bowie’s fans: Those who embrace the melodic will hate it; those who ask that he constantly push himself will embrace it.
“I’d Rather Be High.”
A fascinating bit of neo-psychedelia with swirling guitars rooted in the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” and the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” A military-style drumbeat provides structure as Bowie again questions his mortality: “I’d rather be flying/I’d rather be dead/Or out of my head.”
“Boss of Me”
No, not the “Malcolm in the middle” theme. Cinematic imagery — one of several songs to reference the sky — makes it tailor-made for an action hero film. “Iron Man 3,” perhaps? The sound is sparse and the baritone sax returns; this song, plain and simple, is cool.
“Dancing Out in Space”
A multi-layered treat that bounces to a beat halfway between “Absolute Beginners” and “Modern Love,” Bowie shows how he can pivot off a dissonant chord and swing right back to a happy place.
“How Does the Grass Grow?”
“Boys Keep Swinging” rewired. Nothing wrong with that.
“(You Will) Set the World on Fire”
A high-energy slice of hard rock sounds — especially in the guitar and drums — that plays under some incongruous lyrics. “I can hear the nation cry” is one line; “I can see the magazines” is another.
“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”
A ballad with acoustic guitar, strings and choir accompaniment, Bowie sings, once again, about a vision of death. In this case, it sounds like a suicide — “I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam” — brought on by the loneliness of a cold, crowded city. Tune concludes with the drum pattern of “Five Years.”
Another ballad closes the album, this one more prayer-like than its predecessor. It’s a story song about a man scarred by his father, adrift with little sense of self; it feels like it belongs in a theater piece. “I am a seer, but I am a liar,” Bowie sings as a single violin turns the tune mournful, closing the album with a question mark rather than a resolution.