Back in the 80s Bongwater recorded a song called "David Bowie Wants Ideas." In it, Ann Magnuson recounts a dream in which she receives a form letter from David Bowie who is soliciting ideas for the new album he is recording. The song was a joke, but it had an uncomfortable ring of truth to it. After the runaway pop success of Let's Dance in 1983, Bowie sounded very much like an artist adrift, unsure how to navigate the perilous waters of superstardom.
After a couple failed attempts to replicate Let's Dance's success, Bowie spent most of the 90s trend hopping, jumping on the latest micro-trend (grunge, industrial, drums and bass, jungle, etc.) far too late to sound innovative, or even particularly hip for that matter. It was mostly a depressing spectacle for an artist who had spent the majority of his career setting, not following, trends.
After a label change, the 00s started off on a more promising note. On Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) Bowie sounded like an artist comfortable with his own legacy. To my ears these were good (not great) albums that at least showed Bowie once again in control of his craft. Then came a life threatening health crisis in 2004, followed by what everyone assumed was retirement.
You would be forgiven, my cynical friends if you assumed all the fuss over David Bowie's surprise, super-double secret comeback album, The Next Day, amounted to little more than hype. Bowie fan and professional cynic Lloyd Cole made the curmudgeon's case during a chat on Salon yesterday:
"What I am happy about is that he seems good. Healthy and ambitious. And I think this is his best record for 25 years. Unfortunatly I don't think this is saying that much."In my opinion, Cole is right. The Next Day is Bowie's best album in 25 years. He's also right that, unfortunately, that is not necessarily saying much. Nevertheless, to my ears after a few listens, despite all the attendant hype (or maybe because of it, how can one ever be sure?), The Next Day also sounds like a great David Bowie album.
It's an exciting listen, full of strong melodies, fantastic singing (the man's voice has undeniably held up well), thoughtful lyrics that look back on his storied career and life without nostalgia, and sympathetic production from long-time producer and co-conspirator Tony Visconti. The overall sound is vaguely reminiscent of his much praised "Berlin trilogy" (Low, Heroes, Lodger) with a firmer commitment to pop hooks than heard on those albums. I really have no idea what more you could ask for from a new David Bowie album.
Of course, it's 2013 not 1977, and The Next Day is not going to launch a hundred sub-genres of New Wave the way each of his 70s albums seemed to. Bowie is 66 years old and his days as an innovator are behind him. So what? Against all odds he's just put out a terrific album that can stand proudly alongside his most highly praised albums from the 70s. Set your hard-earned cynicism aside and enjoy the moment.