The Next Day
ISO / Columbia
David Bowie was such a pop-culture chameleon for so long he was bound to blend into one unique shade and stay there eventually; the surprise of his latest regeneration, then, isn’t that he’s out of surprises, but that the loss of pressure inherent in his obsolence has left him free to be human. Not surprisingly, he’s chosen to paint his retirement portrait using the Bowie from the late ’70s — specifically, right around 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), the musical moment where he summed up a half-decade of experimental, angular rock before giving in to pretend normalcy and MTV for good.
Emotionally, however, he’s no longer pretending; this moonlight is less serious but more real. So while the opening title track feels like a combination of “DJ” and “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s not as uncomfortable or distant as either. The excellent single “The Stars are out Tonight” deflates the arena-rock bluster of his Tin Machine project without losing any of the urgency. “Love is Lost” is as sonically grandiose as, say, “Heroes,” but it doesn’t sound like bullets are about to cut his doomed lovers down in Berlin. The posturing, like the Cold War, is over. “Dancing Out in Space” has just got to be a winking nod to his Flight of the Conchords iconography, right?
Much like the time he banned all his old hits from his setlist, only to reinstate them when he realized he’d peaked, The Next Day (right down to its title) finds Bowie in his first post-Bowie phase; his voice sounds as untouched by age as his face looks, but he’s probably still past the age of dress-up. In its stead are fascinating emotional oddities like “Valentine’s Day,” cheerily upbeat straight rock that could easily be the story of any isolated madman with too big a clip for his own good. “I’d Rather Be High” begins with a silly title and pretentious lines like “Nabokov is sun-licked now” but soon reveals itself as a portrait of a doomed WWII soldier who lays down by his parents’ graves in order to understand his fate. The gospel-tinged “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” isn’t much more inventive than its title, but his terrorist-bashing is much more complex, more nuanced, more empathetic than his white-supremacist bashing ever was. Apparently wandering musically makes one as wise as doing it physically. Which is why, lack of surprises notwithstanding, the first Bowie album that demands close inspection is also the first one that rewards it.
Innovation: 77. You’ve heard it all before. But he invented most of it.
Integrity: 80. Is it telling that David spends his autumn years chasing his own legacy, not those of his influences?
The weight of an entire musical subgenre is always heavy, especially one that defines itself by being reactionary. The freak-folk movement of the last decade in general, and the career of Devendra Banhart in particular, has always reveled in inaccessibility — complex moods, restless genre hopping, weird vocals. So you can imagine how he must have felt to wake up one day and realize radio was about to meet him halfway.
Mala, the long-awaited followup to his previous commercial plateau, 2009’s What Will We Be, completes the process: it contains a song about Hildegard of Bingen, sure, but it wouldn’t sound out of place in your dentist’s office, assuming he was a fairly hip one. Sonically at least, “Never Seen Good Things” is no weirder a breakup song on its surface than, say, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” And “Won’t You Come Over,” one of the new and increasingly rare examples of Devendra’s Marc Bolan-on-benzos bleat, is also the catchiest song he’s ever allowed himself. Even the chirpy chipbeat crescendos in the chorus sound ornamental, not experimental. What happened to “our” Devendra, the one so wonderfully challenging?
Well, for one thing, homeboy’s in love. And with a model, at that. Okay, she’s a Serbian furniture designer and photog, mostly, but you could be forgiven for thinking she’d literally rub the rough edges off our boy. The good news of Mala is that those changes have inadvertently sanded off D’s pretense while leaving the romantic in him intact. Never one to sing silly love songs, Banhart, like David Byrne before him, is simply trying out this odd human custom: exploring the intricacies of someone else for once. “Your Fine Petting Duck” isn’t just a strange title for a love song, it’s a litany of reasons why Banhart’s ex — played by his current flame, for an extra level of intrigue — is even better off without him than the dick she left him for. “Won’t You Come Over,” tellingly followed later by another track called “Won’t You Come Home,” finds him quietly murmuring “I can’t wait for all the mistakes we’ve yet to make.”
And that’s the secret to understanding Devendra then and now: he’s a loner, a citizen of New Weird America, new to empathy (it’s no surprise he contributed an original song to an autism documentary) and pleasantly stunned, just lately, to realize he can relax with his bag of distancing tricks now that he’s actually made a connection in the flesh. “Love, you’re a strange fella,” he wonders in, “Never Seen Such Good Things,” as if he’d finally realized how bemused engagement could artistically trump tortured detachment.
Innovation: 78. He’s probably gotten as weird as he’s gonna get.
Integrity: 82. Devendra’s learned how to be compelling and accessible at the same time.