David Bowie’s penchant for periodic stylistic skin-sheddings has been analyzed nearly as much as his music, so much so that it’s become something of a music industry cliché to call him a “chameleon” or a “master of reinvention.” As such, part of the interest in his unexpected return was the possibility of a new incarnation for its creator. Would a new album bring a new Bowie? Well, now that we’ve had a chance to digest The Next Day, it appears that the answer is: yes. And no.
The last time we saw Bowie, he was Elder Statesman Bowie, and the nostalgic tone of The Next Day‘s lead single “Where Are We Now?” didn’t give any great reason to think that this had changed. Hearing the rest of the album, though, it becomes clear that the incarnation of Bowie that’s emerged here is a more nuanced one than that. Or, more accurately, it’s not a new incarnation at all — rather than creating a new character along the lines of The Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s made himself the character. This is meta-Bowie, David Bowie playing with the idea of “David Bowie.”
A constant theme on The Next Day is its references to its creator’s past, both sonically and lyrically. Bowie’s done this kind of thing before, of course — take “Ashes to Ashes,” for instance, and its lyrical evocation of Major Tom from “Space Oddity” — but never on this scale. “Where Are We Now?” set the scene, an introspective ballad that abounds with references to Bowie’s Berlin years, and also echoed the self-reflective spirt of …Hours-era single “Thursday’s Child” (compare “a man lost in time” with “maybe I’m born right out of my time”).
But it was also something of a bait-and-switch, because it bears little resemblance to the rest of the album. It started at where Bowie was but gave no indication of where he was going next. The answer to that question appears to be “everywhere,” and if you’re a Bowie nerd or even just a casual fan, it’s great fun to play “spot the meta reference” throughout: there’s the fact that the outro of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” xeroxes the drum intro of Ziggy Stardust‘s “Five Years”; the echoes of Scary Monsters and Super Creeps track “Teenage Wildlife” in “Dirty Boys”; the traces of “Fame” in “Love Is Lost.”
And then of course, there’s the album cover itself, a radical deconstruction of the artwork to “Heroes” that has inspired much speculation and debate. There’s a fascinating FAQ on the cover design on the website of design studio Barnbrook, which was responsible for the idea. Clearly the image works on several levels, but perhaps the most interesting one is the way it deals with Bowie’s identity: as the Barnbrook FAQ says, “Obscuring Bowie’s image is also reference to his identity, not only in the past when he changed endlessly but that he has been absent from the music scene for the past ten years. Was this an act to hide his identity or that he has simply become more comfortable with it?”
These questions of identity also seemed to be writ large in the curious image that graced the cover of the NME recently — an image that was chosen, of course, by Bowie himself, and apparently presented to the magazine as a fait accompli: “The shot… landed in my inbox,” said the magazine’s editor Mike Williams, “with a message from Bowie’s people: ‘This is just for you. No one else has seen this. David would like to be on the cover.'”
This is a rather fascinating example of how Bowie is able to control his image entirely — after all, who says no to having David Bowie on their cover, whether he’s wearing a hockey mask or anything else that takes his fancy? (Similarly, as Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal noted in his review this morning, “by abstaining from any new interviews and only releasing a few drab black-and-white promo photos, [Bowie]’s all but forcing the press to go back through his archives to fill the inevitable cover stories from all across the globe. So, there’s long-haired Hunky Dory Bowie on the cover of France’s Telerama, a lightning-eyed Aladdin Sane fronting the UK’s Q, a “Heroes” outtake peering out from Japan’s Rockin’On.”) All Bowie’s incarnations are everywhere again — just as they are on the record.
It’s also no doubt significant that the one photo that has turned up everywhere is Bowie sitting under a portrait of a younger version of himself with William Burroughs, the man who gave Bowie the cut-up technique that led to some of his best work. What’s the significance of the elder Bowie wearing a hat that resembles Burroughs’? Is the implication that Bowie is metaphorically cutting up himself here? It’s certainly a fascinating idea.
The Next Day isn’t only about Bowie qua Bowie, of course — it’d get pretty dull and self-indulgent pretty quickly if that was the case. But even its other lyrical concerns are self-referential to an extent, dealing as they do with well-worked Bowie lyrical tropes: futuristic dystopias, fame, war. As ever, though, Bowie comes at them from oblique angles. Even the song titles are deceptive — “I’d Rather Be High,” for instance, isn’t an “Ashes to Ashes”-style reference to its creator’s well-documented hedonistic past. Instead, it’s an anti-war song that, again, echoes some of Bowie’s previous work (in this case “Running Gun Blues” from The Man Who Sold the World.)
And as several reviewers have noted, his voice changes throughout — the title track features a nasal, camp delivery that recalls trashy pop highlights like “Sufragette City,” while “Valentine’s Day” finds him revisiting Hunky Dory whimsy and “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is all deep, melancholy gravitas. On album closer “Heat,” there’s literally a chorus of Bowies singing a song that’s based around the lyrics, “I tell myself, ‘I don’t know who I am.'”
The answer to that, of course, is really only known by the man himself — for the rest of us, this is just another in a parade of images and masks. But in a way, it’s the most intriguing yet, the sound of Bowie addressing his substantial legacy — and choosing to play with it, to deconstruct it rather than simply celebrate it. It also raises the intriguing question of what might come next, if anything. Where do you go after meta-Bowie? Or is this where Bowie’s journey through his incarnations ends, with a playful assessment of everything that’s gone before? In a way, it’s hard to think of anything more appropriate.
In celebration of David Bowie’s first album in a decade, The Next Day — and, you know, because we really love him and will seize any excuse to write about him — we have officially declared David Bowie Week at Flavorwire. Click here to follow our week-long coverage of rock legend, from his new release to a legacy that now spans nearly half a century.