by Phil Freeman
The new David Bowie album, The Next Day, demonstrates and showcases the virtues of, and reasserts the radicalism of, seemingly traditional rock music. Were the vocals mixed just a little lower, the band’s contributions could be heard that much more clearly, and recognized that much more easily, but the conscientious listener—headphones are recommended—will soon take note of the small, almost tossed-off moments of sonic surprise and subtle brilliance, conjured via the minds and hands of genuine virtuosi, that are the true heart of this record.
The Next Day features a medium-sized cast of musicians, but there’s a core group who perform on most of the tracks. Gerry Leonard is the primary guitarist, playing on 13 of 14 tracks; Gail Ann Dorsey is the bassist on seven songs (she also sings background vocals at times), while Tony Levin handles five others; and drummer Zachary Alford is heard on 12 of 14 songs. David Torn also plays guitar on seven pieces here, while Earl Slick guests on three. Two songs, “Valentine’s Day” and “(You Will) Set the World on Fire,” have sharply divergent personnel from the rest of the record—Slick on guitar, Tony Visconti (the album’s producer) on bass, and Sterling Campbell on drums. (Leonard also plays guitar on “(You Will) Set the World on Fire.”) And on three songs, Steve Elson plays baritone sax and/or contrabass clarinet, while pianist Henry Hey appears on two others. A four-piece string section (Antoine Silverman, Maxim Moston, Hiroko Taguchi, and Anja Wood) play on four songs.
The songs with Elson are some of the most immediately interesting. “Dirty Boys” is built on a lurching groove reminiscent of Tom Waits songs like “The Earth Died Screaming” or “Way Down in the Hole.” Alongside the farting horn, the three guitars—straight chopping chords from Leonard and Visconti, and sandpapery blues noises from Earl Slick (I’m assuming)—sear the air. Levin and Alford are a precise rhythm team who nevertheless know how to let the groove breathe. Elson is the only player who gets a real solo, but the song fades as he’s heading into an exciting, almost Archie Shepp-ish place.
He doesn’t get to do even that much on the next song, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” mostly growling in the background as strings that feel like an indulgence (the parts played by four live humans could easily have been punched in from a keyboard; just ask Dimmu Borgir) swoop and swoon. For much of his third appearance, on “Boss of Me,” he shadows the bassist, inserting ultra-low rumbles at the edge of the mix. But as the song progresses, he gradually rises in the mix, and in the final minute or so of the piece, he enters into a call-and-response with the vocalist, and is finally (along with the keyboards) the last sound heard, a long-held note slowly dissolving.
For the most part, the songs on The Next Day are built on supple if conventional rock grooves. In the hands of lesser players, these might be forgettable, even ignorable, a mere backdrop. But a truly exemplary rock performance is as difficult a feat of instrumental interaction as anything in contemporary music—compare, say, prime AC/DC, on its face as primitive and simplistic as rock music gets, to the work of an AC/DC imitator like Rhino Bucket, and you’ll understand what I mean. For this reason, the best music here is made when the band is operating more or less as a unit, relatively free from outside interference.
A perfect counterexample is “Love is Lost,” which features a one-finger keyboard contribution from the singer that’s somewhere between ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” and Miles Davis’s “Rated X,” and which is instantly less interesting than its immediate predecessor, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”; the rhythm is stiff and mechanistic, the drums mixed to sound like a crudely programmed track from the ’80s and the bass hitting one note, over and over and over. Compare that with the shuffling groove and gently psychedelic guitar spirals of “I’d Rather Be High,” also played by Leonard and Alford. (“Love is Lost” features Dorsey on bass, while “I’d Rather Be High” has Levin.) The one-finger keyboards return on “How Does the Grass Grow?”, but they’re beaten back by some digitally crisped guitar from David Torn, the latest in a string of art-noise guitarists to be heard on David Bowie albums, including Robert Fripp and Reeves Gabrels.
Torn, who’s worked extensively with saxophonist Tim Berne, among many, many others, is one of the best things about The Next Day. His contributions are sometimes subtle, sometimes noisy and abrasive, but always welcome. His ability to balance distortion and a beautifully vaporous sort of sound, one that’s uniquely his as far as I can tell, makes him the kind of musician that can vault a seemingly traditional rock song into new, unexpected territory. His embrace of technology also makes him a bridge between classicism and futurism, allowing for a slickness that never feels trendy or bound to the moment of a song’s recording. As a result of his efforts, and those of his bandmates, this is a record which reveals more and more to the focused ear over time. We think we know everything that guitar, bass and drums can accomplish, and that seemingly conventional and familiar structures are an excuse to let our attention wane, to spend more time thinking about lyrics, or fashion, or a record’s position within the commercial landscape, than the actual sounds being produced by the musicians involved. The Next Day is a blow against that mentality, and as such deserves close attention.
Stream “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”: