Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Starman Returns

The unsettling cover for the new David Bowie album
On first listen to David Bowie's dense but danceable new album, "The Next Day," one gets the impression that he never left. The 66-year-old has not released an album in a decade, since 2003's "Reality," and was rumored to be seriously ill. Instead, he has returned to the big stage as inscrutable but as hook-filled as ever. There are even rumors that Bowie is considering a tour later this year.

The album itself can be likened to the latest musical opus from another iconic geezer, Bob Dylan, and his great "Tempest" album in 2012. Both eloquent, lyrical albums demand repeated listening and are not made for an age where we flip through Pandora or Rdio in a constant quest for a breezy musical mash-up. Like many of these artists' past catalogs in their half-century of entertainment, you have to listen hard and listen seriously to what these albums have to say. They are challenging, to say the least.
 Bowie's voice may have thickened with age, but this still is the artist with the mysterious persona, famous for changing his public identity album-by-album (the intrepid stargazer of "Space Oddity," Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, his obsession with Berlin minimalism, the glam Diamond Dog, his blue-eyed soul of "Let's Dance," electronica master with Brian Eno). The man who fell to earth, born Davy Jones, likes to keep things interesting for himself, and that's usually the case for the listener too.

Bowie's latest offers a bit of that shape-shifting, but this time it's littered through various tracks. The album cover offers the first mystery: It is the cover from his "Heroes" album, but it has an intrusive rectangular box plastered in the center with the new album's name. And like the track "Heroes," one of Bowie's most enduring songs, this album does offer some soaring beats. But instead of the fist-pumping lyricism of that song, we get a bit more inscrutability track by track on this album.

Bowie has professed his recent fascination with medieval history, and the title track has references to that, even. There is the subtle, potential allusion that this IS the "next day" that the heroes in "Heroes" have been searching for. Other songs are more concrete: "Valentine's Day" may be bouncy in beat, but it talks of a teenage gunman at a high school who's "got something to say." His song "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" references alienated youth with a doo-wop harmony and features a drum line from the song "Five Years," in his Ziggy Stardust period. "I'd Rather Be High" talks of a returning war veteran who'd rather be in an altered state with his soldier mates. "(You Will) Set the World on Fire" references 1960s folk legend Dave Van Ronk and a made-up meeting with Bobby Kennedy.

That's the most tangible of tracks. The rest of extremely hooky and rousing, with urgent drum beats and Bowie's normal vocal melodrama. But the themes are a bit hard to pin down. There is a certain undercurrent of disconnection, of wasted years, of a society out of tune with its own rhythms and of a certain fate that pulls one forward even when we don't know what is to come. There is both existential dread about the future and a certain hope that we all find what we're looking for. This is no "Golden Years" but restlessness, covered by an unnamed wistfulness for something we cannot really understand.

Even the insistently rocking first single, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," is vague in its meaning; the stars seem to be tormenting Bowie. In a video with actress Tilda Swinton and two androgynous models, the stars on TV and in music seem to be taking over a couple's staid life. The stars are jealous but they may live forever, according to the lyrics. But what does that mean? What vague, unseen, metaphysical being is threatening us? We aren't certain.

Yet, the music is extremely compelling, and the album is addictive. Especially compared to some of Bowie's efforts in the last 20 years, it is both accessible and enigmatic. And it speaks to a truth: The geezers can still rock, even if they refuse to bow to the simpler listening habits of today. After all, Dylan's album offers an 11-minute essay on the sinking of the Titanic. Try doing the "Harlem Shake" to that one.

No comments:

Post a Comment