Bowie comes with big baggage. But what elegant and rakish luggage it is. As such it’s near impossible not to compare the songs on this album to his formidable oeuvre. Will it equal his best work? Could anything? Clandestinely constructed, like an electrified alchemist’s elixir, it has arrived in spectacular fashion, ostensibly from out of nowhere.
It’s lengthy, dense and abstract yet also remarkably straightforward. Such is the secrecy around it, Clash has only heard it twice. Certain tracks have embedded themselves in the psyche, others are half-remembered wraiths.
The plaintive elegy of ‘Where Are We Now’ has been written about ad infinitum already. It’s a stealth song, a grower, deceptive in its simplicity and fragility. However, producer Tony Visconti was correct when he claimed it was a curveball. This is a rock ‘n’ roll album for sure, albeit with melodic hints of Motown and surprising psych.
‘The Next Day’ feels a little hesitant as an introduction; ‘Dirty Boys’ however is succinct and supple, built around a sinuous sleazy sax. The narrator may be off to “Finchley Fair” but this could be straight off ‘Young Americans’. ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, with its mid-tempo punch, has already raised conjecture that it’s about Lennon, his brother, himself even. It has a whiff of ‘Bewlay Brothers’ mystery if not quite its majesty. The Lalo Schifrin urgency of ‘If You Can See Me’ is frenetic, propulsive and urgent. It introduces the concept of conflict, which is echoed later by the veterans narrating ‘I’d Rather Be High’ and ‘How Does The Grass Grow’. Warfare appears again and again as a subtle spectre.
Bittersweet, brittle ballad ‘You Feel So Lonely’ is an absolute stand-out, with an emotional vocal and melody that recalls ‘Hallelujah’. It’s silky and sumptuous with a surprise ending echo of the drums from ‘5 Years’. The remarkable, resonant, Kafka-esque ‘Heat’ is darkly distinctive, close in spirit to ‘The Electrician’ or ‘The Drift’ by Scott Walker. Bowie’s vocal is striking not only for its beauty and strength but also its weariness.
Bonus track ‘So She’ is unexpectedly playful, an upbeat Pretty Things psych delight which should be on the album proper.
This is a contemplative, confident record which will only strengthen with further listening. Reflective, revitalising and luxuriously refined; it’s bloody good Bowie after all.
Words by ANNA WILSON