It goes without staying that a new David Bowie album is a momentous thing, so let’s go ahead and say it. “Momentous.” You’ve no doubt seen the words “Bowie’s first album in 10 years” plastered all over the Internet, but it’s important to emphasize what that means. Bowie has never been out of the limelight this long. Prior to this, the longest gap he’d ever had between albums since 1967 was three years. There were indications hinting otherwise, however. In the mid-aughts, ’05-’07, Bowie performed with Arcade Fire on a few occasions and even curated the High Line Festival in NYC. Surrounded by young musicians and his favorite contemporaries it was easy to speculate there would be something new and grandiose, but instead all fell silent.
When you love an artist you don’t just want them to tirelessly entertain you, you want them to be well and prepare the next offering when they’re good and goddamn ready. In Bowie’s case, his legend and mythic stature has lent itself to a fair amount of speculation and, at his age, some concern. Certainly the man deserves some much needed time off. His 2004 tour supporting his last album, 2003’s Reality, was cut short by a heart attack. Under the circumstances, a fan can only wish for the best, but what can keep a compulsive creator from creating? Is he okay? Is he contemplating his own mortality? Is something being done in secret? What about all of his unreleased and abandoned projects over the years? We want to know what’s on the guy’s mind, and if that happens to be in song form… all the better.
With the announcement of The Next Day, the first single “Where Are We Now?”, and the album’s shocking cover art, Bowie begins to directly answer the most poignant of these questions.
“Where Are We Now?” is a surprising opening statement. It’s not “hit single” material (despite its current chart-topping status), it’s the start of a conversation. For possibly the first time in his career, it’s Bowie looking back. The song deals directly with his time in Berlin during the recording of his revered “Berlin Trilogy” (1977’s Low, 1977’s “Heroes”, and 1979’s Lodger), and the video shows the places he lived and visited then. Once again, Bowie has teamed up with Tony Visconti, who famously produced that era. As if signs weren’t clear enough, The Next Day’s album art is the cover of “Heroes”, text and all, only vandalized in the chicest sense — as if to say something new about something old.
On Reality, he declared he’d “Never Get Old”, but today the ominous and nostalgic question of “Where Are We Now?” humanizes the life of an immortal pop god. The album’s title itself – The Next Day – suggests a continuation, a new beginning, and an ending all at the same time. Which of these concepts the album ultimately focuses on remains to be seen and invites even more questions: What is its relationship to The Berlin Trilogy? Is there a concept, or only the suggestion of a concept? Does it have ties to the sonically similar Heathen or ‘Hours…’? And the uncomfortable and obvious question on everyone’s minds, is The Next Day the dawn of a new era, or Bowie’s provisional swan song?
I’ve got my heart set on the former.