Olly goes to a David Bowie listening party
I’m on my way to a Bowie listening ‘party’. I find the idea of a listening party a bit strange, but Bowie’s a bit strange too. I’m at the 11am session with all the serious journalists, not the 2pm one with all the drunkards and bloggers, so as ‘party’ as it will get is a sausage roll… and the magical land that Bowie transports me to. I have a special place for the guy. The more times Bowie reinvents himself, the more he feels like a character he’s portrayed on film; an odd slightly vampiric immortal, an androgynous alien, goblin king, magician. Take your pick. Any of those explanations would be more plausible than a regular man having his career. His otherworldliness makes this chance to sit down and listen to the album in full like going to church for a revelation.
I first encountered his music as a child as one of the few cassettes that I could enjoy in my mother’s collection. It was the folk stuff, but, shit, you’d have to be a kid to listen to the Laughing Gnome song, so it was fitting. I was disappointed to hear that he didn’t sing that song when my mum went to the concert in the 80s. “But that’s his best song!” He became a stronger figure in my imagination as the Jarred the Goblin King but, being the self-conscious child of single mother, there were self-imposed limits of how strongly I could identify with a man in tights.
As I became more cynical, I put him in limbo, dismissed as a slightly naff pop star. It wasn’t until the 90s when some of my teen heroes were covering him and mentioning him that I checked out his full catalogue. I really got lost in the Berlin trilogy and I loved that Low was meant to be a soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth. But, amazing as this music was, it still felt like visiting a retrospective.
What happened next caught me off guard. Allegedly broke from the kind of exploitative record deals that many of his peers had also signed, he sold shares in his future earnings and put out another three albums. Outside, Earthling and Heathen. Maybe I’m getting it slightly wrong, but it’s a good story. In the USA, he toured Earthling with NIN, one of my favourite bands at the time. I was dumbfounded. He’s always been known as a scenious, one that had the taste and skill to move with the best of the times – doing that with Eno was one thing – but this with Reznor was time-travel. His 50th birthday show further compounded my confusion, amongst the old collaborators and people you would expect, he also he picked Frank Black, Robert Smith, Billy Corgan and Sonic Youth. It was beyond feeling satisfaction that this icon had the same taste as me, it forced me to to change my attitude toward music, to look outside of genres, marketing and labels and to think of them as artists exploring an avant-garde. You could look at it as a cynical exercise to reach around generations, but I doubt it, I don’t think you can last as long as he has unless you really mean it down to your bones. It was the beginning of a thought process that was personally liberating, so thank you, Mr Bowie.
When I arrive at the listening party for The Next Day, a very polite man sits down near me and asks where I was from. I hesitate for a moment and try to think of answer that doesn’t sound like a blog, but fail. I’m stuck in my own world for a moment, he seems surprised when I ask him where he is from. The ABC, he says. I then realise that he’s pretty recognisable. I love you ABC Guy, I just can’t have conversations in the morning. I’m sweating into into my hat and the poster of Bowie in not-dissimilar headgear is cooly staring at me. Bowie never sweats.
Across the room, a major newspaper’s film critic that I’d previously met is holding court. He was slightly rude in the way that critics that find an audience tend to be when I met him but he looks like Ricky Gervais and acts like the dude from Black Books so I don’t dislike him as much as I normally would. He also begrudgingly let me have one of the free drinks he was hoarding last time we met so I rate him 4/5 stars. He’s more of a natural 3.5 but I have a good feeling about him.
They start the album and I immediately wish they’d given me headphones or that this was happening in a big venue rather than a cocktail bar. The way the room sounds makes it harder to make out the lyrics than I would like, and I just want it to feel louder. But I soon forget about it and get lost in the album…
The Next Day (Title Track)
It has a downbeat, slightly flat, deadpan vocal that makes me think this album might be all melancholy and dissident, but this builds to shouting vocals and a beat with a hammer-and-tongs march feel to it. Good intro to the album. It’s the first track and he already had me guessing. It’s like he had a little joke, and then reminded us that he’s still Ziggy.
I wrote ‘squawking beat’. That sounds like a horrible way to describe something. If I could listen to the track again I’d figure out another way to describe it, but I can’t so you’re just going to have to imagine that ‘squawking’ is a good thing, because it was. “When the sun goes down,” the song has his signature double-tracked chorus. That combined with the phrase “dirty boys” and we’re back in classic cheeky innuendo Bowie territory. Happy Mardi Gras, dirty boys go down.
The Stars (Are Out Tonight)
This track has a video that I can’t decide if I love or hate, but I’m glad that I have to think about it. The song is reflective and essentially about the deification of celebrities “dead ones and living”. Good track. Left me wondering whether, in the recent decade more removed from the public eye, he had for the first time the opportunity to observe celebrity as an outsider and also to see others remember his deceased friends as godlike reflections.
Love is Lost
The organ sound reminds me of early Sebastian Tellier. This combined with a discordant guitar is quite magical. It’s the first track that grabs me right from the start. I’m definitely already enjoying this as an album.
Where Are We Now?
This is the other track to already have a video and the first one to drop. It also had a really ‘video’ feel to it but more art school than Lynch. There’s a punk to Bowie doing this kind of video. Not a massive fan of it, but I still respect it.
It’s a melancholy track. The line “Walking the dead” makes me think of the track Dead Man Walking off Earthling but with a completely opposite vibe.
This is the second track that really grabs me from the start. Much more ‘crooner’ than the tracks before – like a 60’s song where the tape has been stored badly and it’s decayed and been infected by this digital age. I’m in love with the guitar on this (I think it’s old mate Earl Slick, what a boss). I’m left imagining it performed by a reanimated cyborg Roy Orbison.
If You Can See Me
His slightly robotic voice reminds me of tracks from Outside. The beat and atmos sounds appear as though they are from a suspenseful moment in a melodramatic film. “If you can see me, I can see you,” the combination of these elements is unnerving… in a fun way. What a creeper.
I’d Rather Be High
Who would have thought that I would dig this track? It has a great opening guitar lick and the words really grab you. “I’d rather be dead or out of my head. I’d rather be high” I feel you bro, life can be dull sometimes, you got to kill the boredom.
SHIT I THINK I’VE LOST MY SPOT AND I’M GETTING MY TRACKS MIXED UP
I’ll need to backtrack a bit, maybe the cue sheet is wrong. Maybe the record company did it on purpose? MAYBE BOWIE IS FUCKING WITH ME??!! no I just lost my spot, but I worked it out.
Boss of Me
I ate a sausage roll during this song, it was delicious. Now we’re partying!
Dancing Out in Space
Digesting sausage roll. Stop staring at me with your staring eyes, David Bowie poster!
How Does The Grass Grow?
Squealing guitar noise (at least I didn’t write ‘squark’ again), the beat is back and he’s regained my attention. It’s like listening to something that he’s been working on while locked in a room with tissue boxes on his feet for ten years. It sounds decomposed, like it was once cheery but it worn into a mania from overuse. I imagine that it comes from a compulsion to be adventurous and transgress what is expected of him rather than any kind of permanent madness. More than any of the others, this track makes me reflect on how perfectly pitched most music (even if it doesn’t have an autotune schtick) is these days. If anything, this song sounds like it’s been put through a detuner.
(You Will) Set the World On Fire
It opens with a chunky riff. Old school classic, the kind of thing that makes people want to learn guitar but never progress past three chords. It’s the most commercial track so far, destined to be cut into pieces and licensed to television as jingles.
You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.
My brain is fatiguing. I like the choir and the Bowie in this track. The lyrics are very descriptive, the song is overall more harmonious and musical; it could be in a musical. I think this is a track that would get better the more you listen to it and is full of sage Bowie wisdom. I wish they had given us a lyric sheet.
All ominous SFX and horror show again and a somber end to the album, but maybe it’s about to change and he’s going to surprise us. Sneaky Bowie! I’ll leave it for when you have a listen to find out.
The Sony lady announces that she isn’t going to play the bonus tracks, but Film Critic speaks up and we get to hear them. He’s using his influence as a serious journalist. I love you Morose Slightly Rude Opinion Guy. I knew there was a reason I gave you 4 stars. These tracks are on the deluxe edition…
The vocals are much sweeter than anything on the album proper. I’m glad it’s there because it reinforces that the discord of the album was entirely intentional.
Dive bombing tremolo arm guitar, metronome click, feedback and a wet snare. Nice interlude. I’m sucker for this kind of stuff. Easy to imagine it as an intro before he goes on stage.
I had planed to skip this one and leave it as a surprise, but I really like how he’s singing about holding my hand and taking me to the USA. Like he’s fucking Peter Pan. Good plan man. Sprinkle me with pixie dust, I’m in.
The Next Day is not as accessible as some of his most (not-that-recent) recent albums like Earthling or Heathen but it’s certainly an album worthy of the man. Give it a listen.
Review by Oliver Heath. Bowie’s new album, The Next Day, is out early this month.