Yet this is no regression. The spiky rocker “Valentine’s Day” may sound like a lost track from the Ziggy Stardust album, but its lyrics pertain to a school shooting. And “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” could be interpreted as both an homage to Odetta and the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s and as the seductive whisperings of a Svengali to the next Britney Spears: “You will set the world, babe, you will set the world on fire / I can work the scene / I can see the magazines,” though the narrator ultimately undercuts his own enthusiasm with a repeated “You say too much.”
Sprinkled here and there are pieces of what might be autobiography. In “Where Are We Now?” we are introduced to “a man lost in time” who is “walking the dead.” From “Love Is Lost”: “You refuse to talk but you think like mad.” In “Heat”: “And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am . . . I am a seer / but I am a liar.”
And how about this refrain from the title track:
Here I am
Not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me
But these are mere glimpses. The real David Bowie remains as hidden as ever; his obfuscation, once regarded as a drawback, now seems, in our age of overexposure, as enticing as an oasis in a desert.
Thematically and sonically, The Next Day is not the graceful meditation on aging and mortality some might have expected. It seethes with unfathomable rage. It rocks like CBGB’s in the glory days. It is weird and wonderful and undeniably alive. While it may not be “the greatest comeback album in rock ’n’ roll history,” as Andy Gill of The Independent claims, it is pretty damn solid. There are nods to Bowie’s past and to his influences (Scott Walker, the Shadows, etc.) and, at this late stage in the game, some forays into hitherto uncharted territory.
Lastly, just in case anyone was pining for the annoying chipmunk vocal effect from “The Laughing Gnome” (1967), it’s back in the song “If You Can See Me.” Why? If the singer holds fast to his vow to not give an interview ever again, we’ll never know.
An Album of the Year Grammy award for David Bowie is long overdue. I look forward to the ceremony, and I look forward to him not showing up.
— Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.