“I need the terror, whatever it is,” David Bowie said of his time on the frontline of the cold war in Berlin making Low and Heroes. Should we believe this grandiloquent claim? (“I’m an awful liar,” he said on another occasion.) Bowie’s songs don’t exactly scream of fear; even 1975’s Station to Station – an album created, according to his biographer David Buckley, in a state of cocaine-induced “psychic terror” – found room for the gratingly jaunty pub rock of “TVC15”.
Bowie’s vague but vital sense of terror is one of the most provoking and enigmatic aspects of his first album in 10 years. The artwork superimposes its title The Next Day on the cover of Heroes, which was made within view of the Berlin Wall in 1977. The lead single “Where Are We Now?” – which, in a publicity coup redolent of vintage Bowie, materialised without warning on his 66th birthday in January – looks back with a sigh at his Berlin days. The nostalgia continues on the album but takes a weirder, less romantic turn.
The Next Day opens with the title track, a strutting rocker with cocky guitar riffs that recall Bowie’s 1970s heyday. It sounds confident and vibrant; yet the lyrics give a very different impression. A man is “whipped through the streets” by a “gormless and baying crowd”. Papier-mâché models of “whores” wash ashore as “soggy paper bodies” while a “priest stiff in hate” demands “fun” from “women dressed as men”. The imagery is grotesque and surreal; the air of perversity evokes Bowie’s old hero William Burroughs. Meanwhile the song’s tempo rises in a tone of controlled hysteria. “Here I am, not quite dying,” Bowie chants in a theatrically demented fashion.
It is a magnificent plunge back into his world, familiar and startling at once. The echoes of the past are deliberate. The Next Day’s producer is Tony Visconti, who made Bowie’s Berlin albums. He returned to the singer’s side after a long estrangement for Heathen and Reality, Bowie’s last two albums before the singer fell mysteriously silent in 2003. Both were hailed as a “return to form” after a long period of decline – a double-edged compliment for a star who has always prided himself on his contemporaneousness.
The Next Day picks up where the last two albums left off, as though it were indeed recorded on the next day and not after 10 years of unexplained inactivity. “Valentine’s Day”, about a high school massacre, opens with a catchy, glam-rock riff played by Bowie’s 1970s sideman Earl Slick. “Dirty Boys”, set to a fabulous LA-noir sax motif, is reminiscent of the “plastic soul” he made in the mid-1970s. “I’d Rather Be High” revisits the escapism of Reality’s “Never Get Old” – although on this occasion the song takes a dark turn as Bowie shifts the chorus from “I’d rather be high” to “I’d rather be dead.”
Cigarettes and age have robbed his voice of high notes, but crafty distortion and dramatic phrasing compensate, as when he switches between staccato yelps and soft caresses on “How Does the Grass Grow?”. “Where Are We Now?” imagines him as an ageing crooner, his voice flickering in the shadows like memories. There are flashes of morbid wit, sung with a sly smile: “Just remember duckies/Everybody gets old.”
Lyrics deftly feed off old themes. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” likens celebrity to celestial stars, still visible from earth many light years after they’ve died, a sexagenarian take on the Hollywood depravity of Aladdin Sane’s “Cracked Actor”. “Dancing Out in Space” calls to mind “Space Oddity”’s Major Tom, “floating in a most peculiar way” above the Earth. A reference to the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima in “Heat” glances back at Bowie’s old Berlin apartment, which was decorated with a painted portrait of Mishima.
Not all the songs are successful. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” tosses its brilliant verses away on plodding rock. “If You Can See Me” resurrects the worst of his 1990s trend-chasing with stuttering beats, an overloaded squall of noise and nonsensical lyrics. But overall The Next Day doesn’t give any hint of the creative block he has suffered.
Why then did he fall quiet? The visions of ageing, death and violence that run through the album may provide a clue. They climax in “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”, an unsettling kiss-off to a would-be suicide (“I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam”), incongruously played as a ballad. Bowie’s idea of terror, an existential dread, follows Burroughs’ “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork” – a sentiment that Bowie rephrased in his Queen duet “Under Pressure”: “It’s the terror of knowing/What this world is about.”
In this context, it’s a telling coincidence that Bowie’s period of recording exile has coincided with the so-called “war on terror”. He makes an opaque allusion to the Iraq war on The Next Day, in a refrain about “training these guns on those men in the sand”; but unlike his response to the cold war in the 1970s, it ranks as a belated and fleeting acknowledgment of the present era of wars, torture and paranoia.
Weakened by a heart scare in 2004, never particularly committed politically – hence the foolish flirtation with Nazi imagery in the 1970s – Bowie appears to have been ill-equipped to make sense of the past decade. It has taken until now for him to find his voice again. Whether this is a sign that conditions in our “age of terror” have improved or normalised is up to us to decipher. In the meanwhile, it has resulted in Bowie’s most substantial album since the 1980s.
‘The Next Day’ is released on March 11, but is now streaming at iTunes