I was 15 or 16 when my father bought us tickets to see Aerosmith. At the time, my music tastes leaned more towards hard rock and heavy metal than indie and alternative, and I was ecstatic to go. After KISS, Aerosmith was probably my favorite hard rock band. I had a vinyl sleeve of Toys in the Attic mounted on my bedroom wall and I owned their first four albums (from Aerosmith to Rocks) on CD. As a budding rock guitarist, Joe Perry was one of my all-time idols, and Steven Tyler was a hell-raising, cocaine-snorting rock n’ roll demon who probably should have died half a dozen times in his heyday.
With that in mind, it was pretty absurd to think that he’d fall off a stage and break his shoulder. My 93 year old great-grandmother falls down and breaks things, not Steven Tyler. The idea that this golden god (to borrow a term from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) could break his shoulder and cancel the rest of the tour was unthinkable. To compensate for our mutual disappointment in the concert being canceled, my father bought us tickets to see Heaven and Hell that summer instead. That show was excellent, but not a year after we crowded in the small WaMu Theater in Seattle, Ronnie James Dio had succumbed to cancer.
In that year, I realized that rock stars are people too. They get old. They go gray. Their shoulders break and their voices rot, turning iconic rasps and croons into shadows of what they once were. Even if the parts still work, the spirit feels a little gone. Something just feels off listening to Alice Cooper sing “I’m Eighteen” at the age of 60, and while Paul Stanley may have been a hot, androgynous sex symbol in 1975, I don’t want anywhere near his Love Gun in 2013. Even new material feels a little stale. AC/DC is pretty obviously running out of ideas, given the number of songs that have some variation on “Rock And Roll” in the title off of Black Ice.
All of this buildup means that when ”Where Are We Now”, the lead single off of David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day, was released without any warning or buildup last month, I was cautious. Although I was mostly a metalhead in junior high, I always had an affinity for David Bowie, so much so that I wrote a play about his music once, a la Mama Mia or that once Billy Joel musical. It’s been a decade since Bowie last released an album, with 2003’s Reality. “Where Are We Now” sounded like it could have been recorded during the Reality sessions. It’s a slower, contemplative song, with Boiwe’s distinctive croon in full swing.
I still had my doubts. I had resigned myself to the notion that Bowie would never put out another album. I own every Bowie album from 1969’s Space Oddity to 1980’s Scary Monsters, as well as 1995’s Outside, Reality, and the live album Live from Santa Monica, 1973. When I read that longtime Bowie collaborators Tony Visconti and Earl Slick featured prominently on the record, I worried that The Next Day would be an attempt at recapturing the spirit of Ziggy Stardust or Low. Even the cover art, a white square with the words “The Next Day” scrawled in it, pasted over the cover art for “Heroes” seemed like a ploy conjure up nostalgia for Bowie’s old work.
In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have worried. After a few missteps in the late 80s and early 90s (Tin Machine, anyone?), Bowie got his career back on track and released some great albums like Reality and Heathen. Reality, especially, showed that Bowie knows how to grow old gracefully. He mixed the modern with the retro, merging the avant-garde with the mainstream. The disparate influences (folk, industrial, hard rock, funk, etc) that pepper his work may change from album to album, but the telltale signs of a Bowie album remain.
The Next Day continues the legacy of Heathen and Reality. We are officially in the era of Modern Bowie, after moving through the decades with Folk Bowie, Glam Bowie, Funk Bowie, Avant-Garde Bowie, Disco Bowie, and perhaps half a dozen more. Many Bowie albums can be grouped into trilogies. Most famously is Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger, so-named for their place of recording. Less often grouped together are Bowie’s Glam Trilogy of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs, each a concept album with glam rock influences, or the Comeback Trilogy of Black Tie, White Noise, Outside, and Earthling, that established Bowie’s continued relevance by embracing techno, drum n’ bass, and industrial music styles.
Now we have the Modern Trilogy. Musically, there’s a little of column A, a little of column Z, and everything in between. The Next Day’s second single “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is pure modern Bowie, an up-tempo rocker with acoustic guitar, piano, and synthesizers all dancing around a standard rock tune. “If You Can See Me”, with frenzied drums, paranoid vocals, and claustrophobic production wouldn’t be out of place on Outside, while “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” could have been cut from one of Bowie’s early 70’s albums. “Valentine’s Day” and “Love Is Lost” are darker, more sinister songs in the style of Station to Station or Diamond Dogs.
The Next Day serves almost as a career retrospective for Bowie. It hits a lot of the same themes that Bowie has written about for forty years, from war and politics to the tragedy of the human condition, not to mention liberal use of historical and artistic references. It incorporates broad sweeping genres and styles that Bowie has moved through in his career. It is a classic David Bowie album, only released in 2013 instead of the 1970s.
And yet, The Next Day never reaches for the low-hanging fruit. Despite borrowing subject matter or even musical cues (the outro of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” uses the unmistakable drum beat of “Five Years”, the opening track of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust), it never feels trite or gimmicky. The Next Day doesn’t indulge in nostalgia. Unlike some aging rockers who rely on rewriting mediocre versions of their own past hits, Bowie uses his history as a stepping stone. The sounds of Ziggy Stardust and “Heroes” and Scary Monsters don’t appear on The Next Day to deceive the listene into a sense of nostalgia. Instead, they serve as roadmaps to the new, exciting direction that modern Bowie has taken. For what it does, for how it’s able to bridge the new and the old, the comforting and the edgy, The Next Day is an exceptional example of a legendary star growing old gracefully.