David Bowie Retrospective Series – Part 13: Not Quite Dying

In preparation for The Next Day, David Bowie’s first album of newly-recorded material in ten years, I’ll be taking a retrospective look at each of the singer’s official studio albums ranging from 1967 to the latest 2013 release.

Reality

With its grand display of bleakness, 2002’s Heathen was a latter-day masterpiece for David Bowie. The record was able to encapsulate some of the best aspects of classic Bowie albums while also being relevant in a modern climate. This tactic, whether intentional or not, was applied to the next entry in the singer’s discography.

Reality, released in 2003, is another strong release from a youthful sounding Bowie, but despite some similarities with its predecessor, it does make itself unique in the distinctively more upbeat, poppy sound as opposed to Heathen’s brooding ruminations.

Of course, this is a Bowie album, so the lyrical content is not going to be anything too lighthearted, but, aside from some exceptions, this record doesn’t sink to quite the same emotional depths as the one that came before it.

The album ranges from ambiguous political commentary in “New Killer Star” and “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” to defiant personal statements in “Never Get Old” to the quieter and more morose moments in “The Loneliest Guy,” “Bring Me the Disco King,” and, to perhaps a lesser extent, “Days.”

From the first spacey notes that begin “New Killer Star,” Reality commands the listener’s attention, owing in no small part to the powerful track that spearheads this group of material. Appropriately, the album as a whole flows together seamlessly and with good effect. While listening to this record, it’s easy to be engrossed in songs that are presented on this tracklist both in terms of its lyricism and its pop sensibilities and melodic presence.

Where Reality differs from Heathen is simply that it doesn’t have as great of a lasting impact after one listens to it. Perhaps this is due to the overall tone of each record. While in some aspects, the two pieces feel like they could be two parts of the same project, Reality is more of a fun and rocking album, – albeit with its fair share of depth – while the lasting impression of Heathen is more powerful and haunting. As such, Heathen is more likely to have more of a lasting impact and stay with a listener slightly more than Reality might.

This by no means makes Reality a subpar album. In fact, in most cases, it’s just as well-made and rewarding as many of Bowie’s other classic works, and in that regard, it is widely recommendable. It may not be a masterwork as the previous album is, but it is certainly a strong compilation of songs.

My Rating: 4 out of 5
Highlights: “New Killer Star,” “Never Get Old,” “The Loneliest Guy,” “Days,” “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” “Reality,” “Bring Me the Disco King”
A Very Bowie Moment:
“Tragic youth was looking young and sexy” – “Reality”
Best Edition: There are a few special editions that each have different features. One has extra tracks, and two have different video features. Choose wisely.

The Next Day

After Reality in 2003 and the resulting tour, Bowie seemed to be taking a step back from the world of popular music. And after the number of health problems and mishaps that plagued his last tour, it would be difficult to really blame the man for not stepping back into the limelight. After a few years, the singer began doing fewer and fewer public appearances, and many people began to suspect that Bowie had quietly retired from being a songwriter. And, to be fair, that suspicion was not unfounded.

Fortunately, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

On March 8, 2013, Bowie’s sixty-sixth birthday, the new single “Where Are We Now?” was released to the internet with the news of his first full-album release of new material in a decade. The Next Day was set to be released in March of the same year, and no one could have anticipated what the new record held in store.

As a lead single, “Where Are We Now?” was a moving and captivating piece of work that recalled the kind of music released on the Heathen album. Was this the most exciting introduction to the new album? Honestly, no. This could have left the listener with the feeling that Bowie was just returning to the style set by his last few records, and that was not the most exciting prospect. But this is David Bowie we’re talking about, and things are never what they seem on first glance.

The driving rock sound of the title track kicks off The Next Day with a shockingly youthful-sounding Bowie at the helm.

“Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree,” the singer snarls in the defiantly captivating lead track. Certainly one of the record’s highlights, this song’s eccentric guitar work and vocal ferocity sounds like it could have been pulled straight off of the Bowie’s own Scary Monsters album.

In keeping with this tone, the tracklist continues to feature a number of similarly hard-hitting rock songs. With its Jack White-esque riffing, “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is a heavily guitar-driven piece, while the frantic rhythms of “If You Can See Me” introduce a distinctly experimental edge to the album.

Like most of Bowie’s previous efforts, The Next Day incorporates a considerable variety of material. Songs like “Boss of Me” and “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” the album’s second single, couple pop-friendly melodic sensibilities with engaging lyrics, while the slow funk of “Dancing Out in Space” evokes the dance-oriented material explored on Station to Station.

Further highlights include the psychedelic pop of “I’d Rather Be High,” the foreboding “Dirty Boys,” and the hymn-like balladry of “Heat” that beautifully closes the album in the similar fashion of the last album’s “Bring Me the Disco King” but perhaps with a greater impact.

The Next Day is a wonder of an album, even more so for a singer that many assumed to have bowed out from creating music entirely, and, in terms of his latter-day work, it stands right alongside the brilliance of Heathen, if not surpassing it.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Highlights: Listen to the whole album. It deserves that.
A Very Bowie Moment:
“Listen to the whores he tells her, He fashions paper sculptures of them, Then drags them to the river‘s bank in the cart, Their soggy paper bodies wash ashore in the dark, And the priest stiff in hate now demanding fun begin, Of his women dressed as men for the pleasure of that priest” – “The Next Day”
Best Edition:
The vinyl edition includes extra tracks as well as a CD copy of the album.

~Stephen

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