David Bowie’s The Next Day: Track-By-Track Album Review

By Lauren Medvig

David Bowie is one of the most important figures in music history. He has been putting out incredible albums since the sixties and has managed to not only keep up with, but has lead many of the musical movements of the last four decades. Starting out as part of the mod movement, David seamlessly transitioned into psychedelic folk and then became the epitome of glam rock. He then began to play blue-eyed soul and funk, or rather “plastic soul” as he called it, before changing yet again and making electronic and new wave music. And that was just between 1967 and 1980.

He has captured the attention and imagination of the entire music world by becoming characters like Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, and The Thin White Duke. His ever changing style and uncanny ability to stay ahead of the curve throughout his career has made him one of the most influential musicians in modern history. After a health scare in 2004, caused by an acutely blocked artery, David seemed to disappear into the depths of Manhattan and after years of silence many fans wondered if he would ever record again.

On January 8 this year, David’s 66th birthday, an announcement was posted on his website that he had a new album coming out in March. The entire music world went into a frenzy. This would be David’s first album since Reality was released a decade earlier in 2003. The album was recorded and produced in secret and no media had gotten any wind of this new project so the album announcement and the video for the song “Where Are We Now?” took everybody by surprise. Now the album has been released and although it’s being called a great comeback album, it feels as though David Bowie had never left.

  1. The Next Day- This song is, on the surface, a very catchy and upbeat song. But like so many other Bowie classics, the lyrics depict a much darker meaning. This song is about a man being dragged away and maimed by an angry mob. “ Here I am/ Not quite dying/ My body left to rot in a hollow tree” and “They haul him through the mud and chant for his death” sound like lyrics that would be much more at home on a metal album than in a song that you can tap your feet to.

  1. Dirty Boys- This is a song that producer of The Next Day and many other classic Bowie albums, Tony Visconti, has described as “sleazy, dark, and sexy.” This song does have a very deep, almost jazzy feel to it. This is the kind of song that should be played in an underground lounge in the 1920’s, filled with cigar smoke and old fashioned conmen ordering whiskey. The song has a simple and almost hypnotizing beat that draws you in and David’s smoky voice takes the listener deeper into that mood. The juxtaposition between the staccato beat of the verses and the smooth, clear chorus adds interest to the song and the two opposing textures add versatility to the piece. It is all topped of with a really sultry saxophone solo done by Steve Elson. This track would definitely not be out of place on his Young Americans album from 1975.

  1. The Stars (Are out Tonight)- This song is the kind of song that will get stuck in your head and it is one that you will definitely listen to again and again. I have yet to figure out the actual meaning of this song. The accompanying music video, although intensely interesting, didn’t really help to explain it, but it definitely helped to capture my curiosity. With lyrics like “They burn you with their radiant smiles” and the imagery in lines like “gleaming like blackened sunshine” one cannot help but be intrigued. This song will pull you in with it’s tune, but the lyrics are what will keep you coming back to it over and over again.

  1. Love Is Lost- This one definitely reminds me of his Let’s Dance album from 1983 with the dark and steady rhythm paired with the bluesy guitar interjections. He even uses the call-and-response guitar style made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughn, who was the guitarist on that album. David will sing a few lines and then the guitar will come in and play it’s bit, then David will sing again and so forth, but while this is happening the tight, steady rhythm section keeps the song grounded and cohesive and provides a moody background until all of the parts come together during the chorus. It is a very simple but effective style that keep the music interesting and the contrast between the quiet and sultry verses and the loud, bright choruses gives the song it’s dimension and power. The song then reaches it’s climax with all of the instruments playing while David pleads “Oh, what have you done?” It is an emotional rollercoaster of a song.

  1. Where Are We Now?- This is the song that pulled everyone’s attention to this album when it was first announced. This was the first video that he released to accompany his announcement. This is a beautiful and simple song. It is very downbeat and focuses on a clean piano part and David’s soft, yet powerful voice. The lyrics are a tribute to Berlin where David lived for a few years in the late 1970’s. In the song he mentions an important public square in downtown Berlin(Potsdamer Platz), a train station(Nürnberger Strasse), a bridge(Bösebrücke), and even a local department store (Kaufhaus des Westens, abbreviated KaDeWe). Although the places mentioned are very specific, this song still manages to relate to people who have never been to Germany. The song really brings out the feeling of being isolated within a crowd. It brings out the same feeling of alienation that David has written about throughout his career, although this track also has hints of nostalgia thrown in that are represented by the tenderness in David’s voice.

  1. Valentine’s Day- This is a prime example of possibly David Bowie’s best feature. He has an incredible talent for making songs that sound magnificent, but the real meaning is only revealed when one decides to delve deeper into the lyrics. At first listen this song sounds very sweet and nice. It is a very happy sounding song called Valentine’s Day. It has a sort of clean sound and David’s vocals almost sound like a throwback to his Ziggy Stardust days. It even has people singing sha-la-la in the background, that’s how happy it is. But as soon as you look at the lyrics sheet you start to realize that there is something sinister about this song and then it hits you. This song is about a school massacre. The song opens with the line “Valentine told me who’s to go” and then mentions the “teachers and the football star”. He goes on to describe the murderer with his “tiny face” and “scrawny hands”. The very next verse begins with the lines “The rhythm of the crowd/ Teddy and Judy down/ Valentine sees it all.” Although the song remains upbeat throughout, lines like “Valentine told me how he’d feel/ If all the world were under his heel” start to feel very uncomfortable and when David starts chanting “Valentine” at the end of the song and mentioning his “tiny hands” and “icy heart” the whole mood becomes quite unsettling, especially when you hear the children shouting “yeah” in the background. It is incredible that these lyrics can evoke such an emotional response without being gory and overtly grotesque. This is a song that you almost feel guilty to love. It’s a song that one can feel completely repulsed by, but also very strongly drawn to.

  1. If You Can See Me- This song begins with some very fast and electronic sounding drums reminiscent of the style he used in his 1997 album Earthling, yet also sounds reminiscent of his song “Look back In Anger”. The cryptic line “If you can see me I can see you” is repeated throughout the entire song and when paired with lines like “And walk to the crossroads/ So take this knife/ And meet me across the river” this seems to be another song that deals with death. In this case the would-be-murderer seems to have set his sight on religious people. In one of the verses he claims that “ I have seen these bairns wave their fists at God/ Swear to destroy the beasts as they stamp the ground/ In excitement for tomorrow” which, to me, represents the people who claim to love God yet curse his name when things get tough. This suspicion is confirmed in the line “I will slaughter your kind who descend from belief” There are also some great images scattered throughout like “Children swarm like thousands of bugs” and there are also very strong lines like “A love of violence/ A dread of sighs.” All of this culminates into a feeling that can only be described as a sort of pop paranoia.

  1. I’d Rather Be High- Yet another brilliantly upbeat song with a dark story hidden within it. Up front this song is a happy and catchy song with a sound taken from a much more psychedelic time period. The lyrics however tell the story of a soldier, returned from war and unsure of how to cope. The first lines, “Nabokov is sun licked now/ Upon the beach at Grunewald/ Brilliant and naked just the way that authors look,” suggest that the war that was being fought is now over. Russian authors are free to lie on the beaches of Germany and get a nice suntan. The lyrics also mentions a group of ladies sitting around and gossiping. Then, the chorus states that “[He]’d rather be high”, “flying”, “dead”, or “out of [his] head/ than training these guns on those men in the sand” which I imagine is hm having a flashback to the war which continues into the next verse as he describes flying to Cairo to find his regiment. This flashback is interrupted by him stumbling to the graveyard and whispering to his parents which, I believe, represents the difficulties he’s having fitting back into normal life. The stumbling makes it seem as though he’s trying to drink away the memories of war. The very last verse, “I’m seventeen my looks can prove it/ I’m so afraid that I will lose it/ I’d rather smoke and phone my ex/ Be pleading for some teenage sex,” is a line that either shows that he never wanted to be a part of the war in the first place, or it is him lamenting the war for stealing a good part of his youth. Either way this song does have very strong lyrics that really pull you into the story of this poor soldier.

  1. Boss Of Me- This is a song that producer Tony Visconti described as “slow and funky” which captures the vibe of the song very well. After all of the death and violence described on the album thus far, this song gives the listener a nice little break from that as David sings a love song. He has never been known for his conventional love songs, and this is certainly no exception, but there is no doubt that this song is about a boy who is completely smitten. The song describes a small-town girl who has enraptured the singer. He describes how he would like to cheer her up when she’s sad and he describes the stars in her eyes and in the last bit of the song he states that “the small town dies” which signifies that they are now together and he has managed to take her out of that small town. Lyrically the song is lovely and musically the song is a nice mid-tempo piece that gives the listener a chance to relax. It isn’t too happy or over-the-top. It’s just a sweet, mellow tune that is uncharacteristically straightforward.

  1. Dancing Out In Space- This song seems to be a simply an ode to dance. It begins with a simple synth riff put over some strong, but also simplistic drums and doesn’t really change much from there. This song has a very smooth and almost floating feel to it. It is very different from many of the other songs on the album in that instead of having a large contrast between the chorus and verse by changing the tempo or having one be loud while the other is quiet, this song remains very consistent throughout. And it is that even and tranquil sound that compliments the lyrics so perfectly. Lines like “Mist and silhouette/ Girl, you move like water” are describing the fluidity of the girls dancing and wouldn’t make sense if they were paired with a choppy or uneven sound. Even the title, “Dancing Out In Space”, is something that could only be accompanied by a light, floating type sound. By using ambient sound to keep the track sounding smooth and using the synth to keep the song sounding futuristic (it is about space, after all) he creates an upbeat yet surreal song that mimics what dancing out in space must feel like.

  1. How Does The Grass Grow?- This is another song that delivers a powerful story in vivid detail. It begins with, presumably, a soldier describing a graveyard filled with “sadness and grief” where “the trees die standing.” It was here that during the war he and his army buddy would meet. Then he asks “Would you still love me/ If the clocks could go backwards?” This line is actually very ambiguous because it could either be paired with the line before it making the sentence “Would you still love me if the clocks could go backwards?” But it could also go with the lines following it, making the sentence “If the clocks could go backwards, the girls would fill with blood and the grass would be green again” meaning that all of the girls who were killed would be alive again and life would be happy again if they could rewind to before the war. He continues to reminisce with the pessimistic lines “Remember the dead/ They were so great/ Some of them.” Then the chorus comes in with the intense lyrics “ Where do the boys lie?/ Mud mud mud/ How does the grass grow?/ Blood blood blood.” The listener is then dropped into a memory of the soldier in which his friend has just been heavily wounded and the soldier believes him to be dead. “I miss you more/ Than you’ll ever ever know/ Waiting with my red eyes/ And my stone heart.” He then becomes melodramatic and is already mourning over his friend. “I gaze in defeat/ At the stars in the night/ The light of my life burnt away.” But just as he thinks all is lost, his friend makes a noise and the soldier realizes that he is alive. “There will be no tomorrow/ Then you sigh in your sleep/ And meaning returns with the day.” This entire song is sung in a way that makes it sound chant-like which emphasizes the war aspect of the song and pulls the listener further into the mindset of this soldier. Very powerful.

  1. (You Will) Set The World On Fire- This is definitely a dance song. It starts off with a really strong, simple rock riff  then the chorus explodes into a catchy storm of cymbals, guitars, and backup singers.  One cannot help but want to get up and move when this song comes on. In the lyrics David transports the listener back to Greenwich Village, New York in the 60’s. He sets the scene of sitting in one of the many trendy clubs at the time (Bitter End and Gaslight) listening to folk musicians like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs playing protest songs when he overhears Dave Van Ronk tell Bob Dylan that this young, black singer with a guitar is the “next real thing.” The entire song is about how this new musician will set the world on fire.

  1. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die- This song is one of the bleakest things I’ve ever heard. It seems to be about a suicide brought on by the loneliness of living in a cold, crowded city. The song itself sounds like a simple ballad, but the lyrics are mainly what make the song so depressing. Parts of the song sound as though they are describing a suicide (I can see you as a corpse/ Hanging from a beam). Other parts sound as though this girl is going to get murdered (There’ll come the assassins needle/ On a crowded train). But, in possibly the most unsettling parts, it sounds as though the singer is wishing for her death (I hear you moaning in your room/ Oh see if I care/ Oh please make it soon). He takes the time to mention that people don’t like her and the last line is “I hope you feel so lonely/ You could die.” With lines like “Oblivion shall own you” and “Death alone shall love you” this song could be less of a story depicting a death and more  describing the vision of death. It is done in the same style as his song song “Five Years” from his Ziggy Stardust days which also deals with the idea of impending death as it describes the Earth’s collapse and people’s reactions to the realization that they’ve only got five years left to live before the Earth dies. At the very end of the song he even throws in the instantly recognizable drum beat that introduces and concludes “Five Years” leading some to believe that this is a continuation of that story.

  1. Heat- This is a song that can be immediately compared to Scott Walker, a man whom David has made clear he idolizes. In his captivatingly deep voice David tells the story of a man, scarred by his father and trying to find himself. It isn’t a straightforward or linear story as some of the other songs on the album were, but it still is one of the most moving tracks on the album. His lyrics like “The peacock in the snow” and “ I can only love you/ By hating him more” are very strong and the repetition of the lines “I tell myself/ I don’t know who I am” and “I am a liar/ I am a seer” make this song intriguing and memorable. It is a very strange way to close the album because it is a song that is very open to interpretation. It leaves more questions than it resolves and leaves the album very open-ended.

5/5 It is incredible that after all these years David is still finding ways to surprise his audience and do something that he’s never done before. In this album instead of choosing a specific sound, each song is unique and he spans many genres. Many songs also tend to be looking back, which is something that he has never done on an album before and fans will appreciate all of the nods to his past. The ten year hiatus doesn’t mean anything. The fans are as zealous as ever and it’s obvious that David has still got it.

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