Jonathan Meiburg (Shearwater) Talks David Bowie’s The Next Day

Even if you're a hardened, embittered Bowie fan who isn't interested by much after Scary Monsters, I think you'll find that his new album...

Even if you’re a hardened, embittered Bowie fan who isn’t interested by much after Scary Monsters, I think you’ll find that his new album The Next Day is, as a raft of breathless press seems to agree, very good.  Maybe even truly excellent — but I think we should probably wait until the adrenaline rush of its surprise appearance fades a bit to figure that out.  In the meantime, let’s talk about his voice.

For all the fuss made over Bowie’s hair, costumes and poses, it’s the way his voice has shifted over the years that interests me most.  The changes have been as subtle as the outfits were overt.  Listen to Hunky Dory or Ziggy, and all his vowels are flat, his mouth’s nearly closed, his voice is resonating off the back of his front teeth, and he cuts right through all those twelve-string guitars and tinny pianos like the knife of his namesake.  But as you go further, through Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs to the Berlin years and beyond, a weird thing starts to happen: the voice migrates toward the back of his throat, his jaw drops, his vowels open, and he sounds ever more like his hero Scott Walker, whose spooky intonation on 1977’s Nite Flights is almost a dead ringer for Bowie’s, except that it’s really the other way around.  Various “Greatest Hits” comps collapse this process and make it perceptible, and that’s where I first noticed it as a kid.  By 1978, after a decade or so of recording and performing, the singer of “Space Oddity”‘s brash, bratty vowels had morphed into spectral, aristocratic boomings, and they pretty much stayed that way for the next 20 years.

I always wondered why this happened, and whether it was something he did on purpose.  Singers’ voices tend to age in interesting ways, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not.  Joni Mitchell’s, burnt (with grim purpose, one suspects) to a dry husk by cigarettes, is an extreme example, as is Robert Plant’s, whose much-abused high register has deserted him, though he seems to delight in combing through its damaged remains.  Dylan, of course, went through a phase in which his voice seemed to give up on the very idea of singing (though I have an affection for the weird Jim Nabors-like “country” voice of Self Portrait and Nashville Skyline).  Closer to the present, Michael Stipe’s voice, originally grave and gritty, turned dark and husky, then brightened, cheered up, and became strangely weightless; Bill Callahan’s voice opened, dived, and doesn’t yet seem to have found the bottom; Gil Scott-Heron’s oratory ripened into a splendid growl; Lou Reed’s went kind of warbly, lost its once-unassailable authority and eerie tenderness, and hasn’t been able (or perhaps doesn’t want) to find it again.  There are exceptions, naturally — Jimmy Scott kept his high notes up to the very end, though with a slight wobble; Morrisey’s voice lost its fun but carried on otherwise, Neil Young’s voice seems to have emerged from the egg more or less in its present state, Patti Smith’s grew into the age it once affected, and Mick Jagger’s cartoony honk is a sort of museum piece, a dogged re-creation of a funny voice he stumbled into as a teenager and milked for half a century.

Which brings us, I guess by way of “Dancing in the Streets,” to Bowie, and his voice (or voices) on The Next Day.  The choice of “Where Are We Now” as the first single from the record was canny, as it presents a new Bowie voice: plain, vulnerable, a little weary, and — it must be said — old, its glassy surface showing more hairline cracks than when we last heard it a decade ago.  But it’s bravely, even defiantly old, and it dares you to do the one thing we’re not accustomed to doing with an artist who has so fully and publicly embraced method acting: to take him at face value.  Buried in the middle of the record, this song might have escaped notice, but as the first song he’d released in ten years, it acquired a special weight.

It was also something of a feint.  For one thing, “Where Are We Now” is more or less the only song that might be called a ballad on The Next Day, and its tender combination of nostalgia (which it dismisses as “just walking the dead” even as it indulges it — or gently mocks it? —  with treacly synths) and bewilderment never really surfaces again in an album packed with heavy drums and keening guitars.  But it’s the patina of this voice, this humble and backward-looking voice, with its feathery edge and relaxed, speaking-voice vowels placed somewhere between Ziggy and “Ashes to Ashes,” that overlays Bowie’s delivery in the rest of the album, even at its most charged and frenetic.

And the rest of The Next Day, as it turns out, is a tour of most of the voices and musical approaches Bowie’s used over the years, to the extent that it’s tempting to label the album as an Original Cast Recording.  I’m not going to go through them all — you should just listen to the damn thing, already — but most startling to me is the poison-pen love letter of “Valentine’s Day,” ostensibly about a high school massacre, and structurally the most straightforward and satisfying pop song Bowie’s written in an age.  He serves it up without any avant- or even pseudo-avant anything, and  takes his voice back in time, too.  His delivery is straight-up Hunky Dory – the jaw slammed nearly shut, the sneer back in place, and nearly all of his young self’s venom and humor brought back to life in a flash.  The song is paired, brilliantly, with the spine-tingling “I Can See You,” a stuttering nightmare of an apocalyptic panopticon, in which he pops the clutch vocally and shifts into the hollow vowels, dread and disorientation of Scary Monsters in the album’s most successful one-two punch.

The two songs that conclude the record are equally stunning — “So Lonely You Could Die” takes the tempo, vocal approach, and instrumentation of Ziggy Stardust’s “Rock and Roll Suicide” and turns that song on its head (“You’re not alone!” has become “See if I care!”), then (after an unnecessary victory lap through a snippet of the drum figure from “Five Years”), segues into the scorched earth of “Heat.”  When Bowie’s voice emerges from an ominous droning of violins and his own acoustic guitar, it’s a withered shell, a dying baron’s croak, from so deep in his chest it seems to emanate from his rib cage, repeating “I tell myself/I don’t know who I am.”  It’s tempting to think of this as, once again, the unvarnished, “real” Bowie, until you try to place the voice and realize he’s channeling Scott Walker again, this time the Scott Walker of Tilt and The Drift.  Unlike Walker, who’s wandered into a scary netherworld where his old voice is seldom visible, Bowie’s been more faithful to his brand, but I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment — somehow, as he almost always has, he’s found a way to tweak the brand so that it suddenly means something new, left us agog in the aisles, and dashed out, by the back stairs.  “My father ran the prison,” he murmurs, as the song fades.  “My father ran the prison.”  This ain’t rock & roll; this is genocide.

In all of these voices, the slight creak of Bowie’s age never quite disappears — how could it? — but since he laid that on the table so plainly in “Where Are We Now?”, the reanimated versions of his old vowels and voices, even in the darkest songs, seem laced with an odd fondness and wisdom.  It’s as if he opened his closet, tried on some old outfits, and was pleased to find he could still wear them convincingly with an adjustment or two, all the while aware that there’s really no such thing as going back, not all the way.

It’s also probably worth noting that the four-piece rock band itself, and especially the electric guitar — that bastion and symbol of late-sixties rebellion — has grown long in the tooth. It’s been nearly 50 years since Hendrix, and though it’s still a satisfying instrument, I think it’s safe to say that the electric guitar no longer has the power to shock or surprise in the way that Mick Ronson’s performance on “John, I’m Only Dancing” once did — has a rock guitar ever sounded hornier? — or Adrian Belew’s eerie squeals and drones in the “Heroes” era.  Earl Slick’s performances are nicely rough-edged, but some of the other guitar sounds on The Next Day just remind me of a trip to Guitar Center, no matter how adeptly executed they are.

But again, maybe that doesn’t matter too much.  The point isn’t to shock, but to stay alive, and the musicians Bowie assembled for The Next Day succeed on that score.  It’s a nice mix of his oldest favorites (Slick, producer Tony Visconti) and newer associates like bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Zach Alford, who attacks the drums with the vigor of Tin Machine slugger Hunt Sales but also seems to hold himself discreetly in check out of a kind of curatorial respect.  The band was apparently kept in the dark about the new material until they went in each day to record, and there were few “takes” of each song, which might account for the overall sense of freshness and excitement in the performances of these nimble pros, for whom musical life is probably a constant struggle against perfection.    In his mid-’80s to mid-’90s albums, Bowie’s cavernous voice sometimes sounded tacked on over backing tracks, but here, as he sings again through clenched teeth or howls from his gut, he seems like he’s almost part of a band.  And Visconti, to his great credit, lets the album sound like a band; the noticeable production touches are subtle, and limited mostly to a few long reverbs, some vocal EQ, a brief reprise of the harmonizer-on-the-snare trick he pioneered on Low, and a little clever panning.  Overall, he lets (or makes) the instruments speak in their natural voices, and the result seems very real — almost hyper-real.  The drums sound like drums, guitars like guitars, and Dorsey’s fretless electric bass slithers around to surprisingly malevolent effect.

There are moments in recording, if you’ve been at it for a while, when a sound comes out of your mouth that you weren’t expecting, and it’s one of the great thrills of a process that’s often laced with a deadly tedium.  Equally surprising, though unpleasant, is the moment when you go for a note or effect you once reached with ease, but now eludes you, and you have to find a way around it.  Somehow Bowie’s voice on this album manages to embrace both sides of this coin, producing a record that sounds like both a clear-eyed look back and a brave attempt to embrace the present by recovering, re-living, and re-purposing old love, old guilt, old terrors, old sounds.

The biggest artistic problem for someone as famous as Bowie, I imagine, isn’t so much a question of aesthetic or approach as a question of perception.  No matter what he releases at this point, his audience is almost as invested in his biography, and in the character of “David Bowie” (which isn’t, after all, even his real name) as we are in his music.  It’s incredible enough that he shifted the entire aesthetic of western pop music in enduring ways that are both silly and serious, but once you’ve accomplished something on that scale, it’s probably difficult to climb down, and worse, nearly all anyone wants to talk about.  (I remember a 2003 Fresh Air interview in which Terry Gross kept asking about gender-bending and Ziggy, and an audibly annoyed Bowie, hearing these questions for the thousandth time since 1973, tried to cast himself as “a bloke what wrote a lot o’ songs.”)  I’d think success of this kind could throw up a formidable barrier to getting anything new across, and could do the mightiest ego in, after a while — even his.

So I’m really glad he went back to the crucible.  He seems to have done it mostly unguarded and unafraid, and with the urgency of an itch that needed scratching.   Most of the gauzy, reassuring, cowardly sweetness of pop’s current crop of pastel youngsters, for whom the greatest betrayal imaginable doesn’t usually extend much beyond middle-class angst, a false lover, a woman scorned, or a hangover, seems decidedly pale compared to these frightening monochromes from an old master, and in refusing to give any interviews about them, he’s given The Next Day its best chance of being judged on its merits.

What to say, then, about the burden of the collective nostalgia we bring to this record?  Can we let it off the hook this once, and just be grateful for a bit more Bowie?  At the very least, I think we can be glad to hear the voice of a towering and unique singer whose voice respects the past but is wary of romanticism, who’s willing to satisfy and subvert the expectations of an audience that’s inevitably aging with him (even those of us who arrived a bit later).  As for the undying appetite of the audience for the hits of the past, I guess it’s just human nature.  We can’t seem to help wanting the old stars to come out again, to do that old dance, sing that old song, and in doing so to re-conjure, however imperfectly, an earlier time in our own lives, and kick time and death in the teeth one more time.

Does The Next Day do it?  I can say this for certain: listening to this album for the first time gave me a feeling I haven’t had since I saw the Stooges headline a festival where I played an early slot, way back in the mid 2000s.  It was the Fun House lineup, before Ron Asheton died, and it was amazing to hear Iggy reshape his voice (and his vowels) around the old lyrics, sounding (and, from fifty rows back, looking) almost exactly like his younger self.  Maybe it was just muscle memory. But after the euphoria of the band’s entrance, it became pretty clear that something was off.  It wasn’t quite getting over.  It was a museum piece, even when Iggy humped the amps and whipped the microphone like a lasso around his head.  And a few songs in, after a moderately convincing “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” Iggy stopped.  “I want everyone here up on this stage,” he said.  “Come on up.”  There was a pause, and a ripple of energy through the crowd.  Was he serious?  “Come on up, motherfuckers!,” he bellowed.   And, sure enough, it started to happen — a few kids jumped the barriers and tried to climb to the stage.   Security moved in half-heartedly, but Iggy went right for them.   “Let them up!” he barked.  “They’re not gonna kill you.”  Then there were ten people on the stage, then 50, then 100, and as they kept streaming on, the band launched into “No Fun.”

Whether or not this was a premeditated set piece, no one could believe it was happening.  On stage, it was pandemonium; there had to be 200 people up there, a churning mass of delirious kids.  Ron Asheton disappeared in the crowd, but his guitar stayed up in the mix.   Someone was standing on Mike Watt’s amp stack.  The cymbal stands swayed back and forth, and Iggy crouched at the front of the stage, handing the microphone off to the audience, snatching it back, singing his dumb-as-dirt but weirdly immortal song for the millionth time.  Out in the crowd, it was electric.  We cheered our heads off, because something was happening, and for once, at a big rock show, we had no idea what was going to happen next.   It was the Stooges!  Like, really, the honest-to-shit Stooges, beamed in from the past in some kind of cosmic accident.

Then the song ended, and for a minute it felt like the cops had arrived  to raid the party.  The football field’s main lights came up, and Iggy quickly dialed all it back down, shooing the kids off the stage with the aid of an immense bodyguard (his son). “OK, everybody,” he said.  “Easy on, easy off.  Go back to the first grade.  Thanks for dancing, dude.  Aw, honey, don’t kiss me.” The wormhole started to close, the electricity dimmed.  It wasn’t really 1969.  There wasn’t going to be peace, dope, and fucking in the streets. But there was still something in the air, you could feel it, the night wasn’t the same now.   Iggy turned back to his band.  For a moment, he looked almost tired, his shoulders heaving a little.  Ron Asheton was still standing.   Mike Watt was checking to make sure the amp head wasn’t going to fall off his speaker cabinet.

Then they played “I Wanna Be Your Dog” again.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Jonathan Meiburg is the singer for the band Shearwater, whose new album Jet Plane and Oxbow will be released early next year by Sub Pop Records. You can follow Shearwater on Twitter here.