Ashes to ashes: Bowie muses on his mortality
Despite the gloomy themes of the rock chameleon's new album, there are upbeat songs to savour too, writes Barry Egan
When Bono was a young man growing up on Cedarwood Road in Ballymun, Dublin, in the mid-Seventies, he would badger his friend, and David Bowie fanatic, Gavin Friday into loaning him copies of his Bowie albums.
Gavin, who lived at the end of the road, recalled that when he eventually got Ziggy Stardust, Low or Heroes back from Bono, they would be either in the wrong sleeves or, worse, the front sleeve would be covered with the future singer of U2's strawberry jam.
For his new album – his first in 10 years – David Bowie, 66, has not quite covered the front of Heroes in jam, but almost.
The title of the seminal 1977 album is redacted and a white square covering the iconic image of Bowie in a pose modelled, so the legend goes, on a painting by 19th century Expressionist Erich Heckel, with the intriguing words added: The Next Day.
Because Bowie nearly died in June, 2004 – he was brought offstage during a concert in Germany and had emergency, and life-saving, heart surgery – it is difficult not to view everything on this album through the prism of mortality. For me, therefore, the next day refers to the day after Bowie's death and almost every song has a magnificent melancholic fragility that is underpinned by Bowie's grand thoughts on the end. But even before his 2004 near-appointment with the Grim Reaper, Bowie was publicly decrying his own mortality. In a 2003 interview, he said he felt "bitterly angry that I won't be doing this for the rest of eternity".
The Next Day – Bowie's 24th studio album – comes across like a final present to the world to last us for the rest of eternity, a finale to go on forever. It finishes with the apocalyptic dirge Heat and Bowie repeating over and over that his father "ran the prison".
On I'd Rather Be High, he is stumbling to the graveyard where he lays "down by my parents/ Whisper: 'Just remember, duckies – everybody gets got'."
I can only assume that dame Bowie, duckies, is referring to the soul cages of human existence, but with Bowie you assume nothing. Tony Visconti, his long-term studio collaborator since 1969's Space Oddity, who produces The Next Day, says that the songs are not about Bowie.
Like some ancient philosopher appearing from beyond the grave to round on Earth for its sins, Bowie asks rhetorically on Love Is Lost: "Oh what have you done, what have you done?" He then tells human beings that their faces and their eyes and their possessions are new ". . . but your fear is as old as the world".
Recorded over the past three years in New York in a KGB-like secrecy, The Next Day starts as it means to go on. The title track – which opens the album and bears more than a passing resemblance to Beauty & The Beast on Heroes – has Bowie state: "Here I am not quite dying, My body left to rot in a hollow tree." There are people who "work with Satan while they dance like saints".
There are endless dark contemplations on the world Bowie has lived in and will leave behind. On If You Can See Me he talks of those who "will take your lands. . . slaughter your beasts. . . I am the spirit Greed".
On You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, he sings: "I want to see you clearly before we close the door. . . I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam. . . I can feel you falling, hear you moaning in your room. . . Oh see if I care. Please, please make it soon. . ."
Don't expect Boyzone to be covering these songs soon.
It sounds in parts like Antony and the Johnsons, Arcade Fire, Bono, Lou Reed, Joy Division, Morrissey, Suede, New Order, Scott Walker, even Gavin Friday – many of the artists who probably would have never gone near a stage or a recording studio if it wasn't for the existence of Mr Bowie.
There is much about the past (the Village in Sixties New York, Joan Baez and John F Kennedy, Hungary, even Finchley Fair in London and Georges Rodenbach, a Belgian author of the Victorian era.
He is more direct with his sonic past on Dirty Boys, which is Boys Keep Swinging from his 1979 album Lodger slightly re-conceptualised.
Despite all the doom and gloom, this is actually quite a musically upbeat Bowie record: Dancing Out In Space and Valentine's Day are two of the catchiest alt-soul songs Bowie has done in ages. In a market-driven music world it is remarkable, even unimaginable, to have a record full of such thoughts about death and beyond released. It is marvellous to have him back, hopefully he won't wait a decade for the next record.
Or maybe that's it from the starman and we should treasure it like Bono did the borrowed jam-splattered copy of Heroes all those years ago.