Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire. – St. Catherine of Siena
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ten years ago David Bowie seemed to be in the middle of the graceful managed decline which we’ve come to expect from our music legends, putting out tasteful albums which, while critically acclaimed, were seen as inferior to his best work. He’d regained much goodwill by ditching the wilful experimentation of 1.Outside and Earthling and instead putting out albums which sounded like what you might imagine an archetypal Bowie album in the 00s to sound like; throw in post-9/11 reflections on mortality and ageing and it was critical catnip. He toured regularly and had overcome his reticence to play the hits, making his shows celebratory, nostalgiac affairs rather than the difficult and strange atmosphere which hung over much of his 90s appearances. Bowie was even playing along with the idea that his best was behind him, pondering how he “used to wake up the ocean” and “used to walk on clouds” on Afraid. He was making it very easy to like him yet there was little wider interest – after the flurry of interest which greeted Heathen (seen as a PROPER BOWIE ALBUM) people moved on – none of Reality’s singles troubled the charts and it spent only 4 weeks on the album chart.
And then he disappeared.
Whatever the reasons for his decade of near-silence, it wouldn’t be reaching to say that it’s probably the greatest thing that could have happened to Bowie’s career. By removing himself and leaving behind what seemed to be a solidified and settled body of work, he became a mythic version of himself – “David Bowie” was an abstract idea more than a person. People could love the Bowie in their head without the man himself popping up to ruin their pre-conceptions with some pesky new material. The longer the silence went on, the larger the myth grew. The advent of the Facebook and Twitter age brought with it a new breed of pop star who was expected to be ‘approachable’ and ‘down to earth’, tweeting their daily activities and instagramming themselves in their cars. And so Bowie’s myth grew even larger: the man who had so often portrayed himself as alien truly seemed to belong to another dimension. Dark whispers circulated that the man himself was dying, his particular terminal illness varying depending on who was presenting it as a fact. As we entered 2013 it seemed unthinkable that it would not just be another year of silence from Bowie the man while some unobtrusive reissues would further stoke Bowie as legend.
The hysteria which greeted Where Are We Now?, then, is completely understandable. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. It seemed like an ancient legend had deigned to grace us with their presence once more. WAWN’s genius is clear in retrospect: it plays like a release from the abstract Bowie rather than the corporeal one. The man is barely present in the video; he sounds frail and old and sings of memory and death. It ties in completely with the idea of Bowie which has taken hold in the past decade and, in doing so, it doesn’t disrupt people’s affectionate conceptions of him. This is its towering achievement. Make no mistake, as strong a song as WAWN is there can surely be little doubt that, had it been released in 2004, it would have quickly faded from the public consciousness and never would have charted in the top ten. Yet in being his first release since he became a myth it had a lot of pressure on it – it could easily have been the catalyst for Bowie’s fall to earth. Perhaps if he’d returned with some 1.Outside-esque experimentation, it would have been. Instead Bowie, ever astute, makes it easy for us to love him again.
His appearance in the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is when it all slotted into place: that odd, self-referential album cover, Where Are We Now?, the Berlin imagery, Bowie’s spectral presence and refusal to promote The Next Day with interviews or appearances. He knows exactly what he has become and he’s having enormous fun with it while being careful not to damage the cachet it affords him. Nothing on The Next Day is obtuse – even album closer Heat, the latest result of Bowie’s long obsession with The Electrician, is aesthetically graceful rather than difficult. The opening title track may be about a medieval tyrant but it positively bounds out of the speakers, eager to please. Many reviewers have rightly noted the chorus’ cheeky and amusing opening line of “Here I am/not quite dying!” but few have noted that it’s followed by “my body left to rot in a hollow tree”. Could he be making his intention to nurture his own myth, to feed into Bowie the abstract, any clearer? Heck, even his picking up of a tawdry celebrity gossip magazine in the video for TS(AOT) and Tilda’s subsequent binning of it now seems like a glaringly obvious pointer.
To this end the album is full of nods to his own past – with that cover, how could it not be? The sound of the album generally recalls the work he did with Iggy Pop on The Idiot and Lust for Life – both released, of course, in the same year as “Heroes” (1977). That title track invokes the spirit of Beauty and the Beast but within seconds of the second track, Dirty Boys, it’s clear that it’s not only that year in Berlin which is being used here as it deploys the famous riff from Fame. Valentine’s Day is a charmingly melodic number which, with its 50s influences, bears comparison to Drive-In Saturday while The Stars (Are Out Tonight) features a rumbling sax which nods towards Absolute Beginners. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, meanwhile, could pretty much be called I WAS ZIGGY STARDUST YOU KNOW such is its obvious intent to rewrite Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (it even ends with the drumbeat intro to Five Years).
Obviously The Next Day’s playful attempt at being a meta-Bowie album could have been a disaster if the songs weren’t up to much – fortunately that’s rarely a concern. While at 15 tracks it could certainly afford to lose a couple of tracks (Boss of Me and Dancing Out in Space feel functional rather than thrilling) it’s an electrifying listen. Even amongst all the references to his own mighty past, a song like If You Can See Me sounds daring and stirring. The crux of the album seems to be (You Will) Set The World On Fire, surely a reference to the famous St. Catherine of Siena quote above – Bowie understands that if he plays along with us at being the archetypal David Bowie, the world is his. This is the spine-tingling brilliance of The Next Day which manages the almost-impossible feat of being new and engaging without disturbing the myriad of different notions people have of Bowie. Where he goes next is impossible to predict – maintaining this artifice seems impractical. Indeed, it’s surely telling that the album ends not with the self-consciously epic You Feel So Lonely You Could Die but with Heat, where Bowie mournfully muses “I tell myself I don’t know who I am” and sings of a prison. It’s a glimpse of the other side of the abstract Bowie, a conceit which does not allow for works like Earthling and he’s clearly all too aware of that. For now, however, we can allow ourselves to be bewitched and thrill at the day we had allowed ourselves to believe would never come: David Bowie is back.
Today this advert for TND appeared in the press – I think it’s fair to say that it reflects a lot of what I wrote above: