March 1, 2013

The new David Bowie is currently available to stream for free on iTunes, and the question on everyone’s mind is, “How sad should this make us?” The Next Day is the onetime superstar’s first album since 2003′s indifferently-received Reality, and it hasn’t been hotly anticipated so much as warily watched out for. If this were Springsteen or the Stones, no one would worry too much. We know they’re doing fine. But Bowie made his bones as an artist, and just because he hasn’t made any good art in decades doesn’t mean that his ambition is gone. This is a man whom we don’t want to fail.

In this week’s New York Magazine, Bill Wyman has an excellent retrospective on Bowie’s long and complicated career, in which he concludes that Bowie hasn’t done anything important since the late ’70s. I think that’s a bit of a stretch—Let’s Dance may not be revolutionary, but it’s a shitload of fun—but Wyman’s overall point is well considered.

The new “Where Are We Now?” is a similar meditation on life made suddenly fragile. “Fingers are crossed, just in case,” he sings. His memories, he tells us, are like “walking the dead.” In the video, the star looks, shockingly, quite old. It’s a brave performance, reminiscent in certain ways of his heyday—and isn’t old age a mask as well? The memories of the stars from the sixties and seventies are formidable. They were inventing not just themselves but a new world. In it, they roamed like mad princelings, fucking just about anything that moved and taking in all it had to offer. Isn’t it unfair to expect them to accomplish new revolutions?

Listening to the album this afternoon, it’s certainly not revolutionary. It’s the same dreamy, slightly irritating pop that he gave us in Reality and 2002′s Heathen. But even though the songs are forgettable—with the possible exception of “How Does the Grass Grow?” and “(You Will) Set The World On Fire?”—it’s good to hear Bowie again. His decade out of the public eye was prompted by a heart attack, and it was starting to seem like he would never going to record again. How frightening, to think that one of rock’s greatest creative talents had lost his spark completely. But here he is again. On The Next Day’s upbeat numbers, it’s easy to picture him in the studio, dancing a little as he sings. Compared to the image I’ve had of Bowie for the last few years as a frail, sickly recluse, this is an improvement.

So, how seriously should we take this album? Do we give Bowie a pass, because we’re happy to know that he’s still well enough to record? Or do we hold him to a higher standard? I’d like to know what David Bowie thinks about the album. Is he proud of it? Is he just happy to have it finished? Is he expecting this to spark a revolution?

I’m sure of one thing: David Bowie doesn’t give a damn what I, or anybody else, thinks. If nothing else, I’m grateful for The Next Day for reminding me that Bowie is, as ever, defiant. Defiant of death, defiant of critics—still in the studio, hard at work and having fun.

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