The album’s themes

Upon The Next Day‘s release, David Bowie avoided all interview requests, with Tony Visconti and the musicians filling in many of the gaps. Bowie would retain his public silence for the remainder of his life.

Although the musicians were able to reveal the circumstances surrounding the album’s creation, they were able to shed little light on the lyrical themes. Bowie recorded most of his vocals some time after the backing tracks had been recorded, and the songs often had working titles unrelated to their final guises.

I haven’t heard the album yet, but I’m gonna guess I’m on anywhere from five to seven of those. I’ve seen the titles these past few days, but they don’t mean anything to me. They all had working titles when I was in there.
Earl Slick
Rolling Stone, 25 January 2013

The album’s first single, ‘Where Are We Now?’, was a nostalgic look back at Bowie’s past, most notably his late 1970s period living in Berlin. This led to speculation that the album would be a valedictory moment, a notion quickly refuted by Tony Visconti.

Everything else on the album is kind of observations. He’s writing in the third person. Some of them belong to his life, but some of them are things like social commentary. He was reading a lot of medieval English history books, and he came up with one medieval English history song. That’s the title track, ‘The Next Day’. It’s about somebody who was a tyrant, very insignificant; I didn’t even know who he was talking about. But if you read the lyrics, it’s quite a horrific story.
Tony Visconti
Rolling Stone, 15 January 2013

The only key moment of nostalgia song on The Next Day is ‘Dirty Boys’, a recollection of teenage delinquency which may or may not be fictive. Elsewhere, dark themes are in abundance, from the title track’s religious tormentors and the school massacre in ‘Valentine’s Day’, to the disaffected seventeen-year-old soldier fighting desert enemies in ‘I’d Rather Be High’ to the angst-ridden finale ‘Heat’ – the lyrics of which were dark enough for Visconti to ask for an explanation.

The lyrics are so bleak I asked him what he was talking about. ‘Oh, it’s not about me,’ he said. None of these songs are. He’s an observer.
Tony Visconti
The Times, 12 January 2013

Bowie presents a series of character sketches throughout The Next Day, the most on any Bowie album. The majority are fictitious, while others have clear historical roots – such as ‘(You Will) Set The World On Fire’, which harks back to the early 1960s Greenwich Village clubs where Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk rubbed shoulders and rewrote the rules of folk music.

Although there are fleeting moments of lightness, for the most part The Next Day is unremittingly bleak. Bowie sings of slaughter, fire and fury, of funerals and isolation, with little reprieve or redemption. ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’ finds Bowie at his most vengeful and vindictive – his very own ‘Positively 4th Street’ – mercilessly willing misery and suicide on a hapless unidentified foe.

[Bowie had been] doing a phenomenal amount of reading: old English history, Russian history, the monarchs of Great Britain — what made them bad and good. Everything he reads makes it into the lyrics of his songs”, which is evident on the rest of the songs on the album about tyrants, spies and soldiers.

I’ve worked with other rock stars who want to talk about their yachts and horses. Not David.

Tony Visconti
The Times, 12 January 2013

Bowie broke his silence on just one occasion. The novelist Rick Moody, whom Bowie was known to admire, contacted the singer asking for a list of words to help elucidate the themes of The Next Day. Moody barely expected a reply, but was astounded to receive a list of 42 words from Bowie, which he considered relevant to the album.

I persuaded Bowie, somehow, to give me a sort of a work flow diagram for The Next Day, because I wanted to think about it in light of what he was thinking about it, I wanted to understand the lexicon of The Next Day, and so I simply asked if he would provide this list of words about his album, assuming, like everyone else waving madly trying to get his attention, that there was not a chance in hell that I would get this list, because who the fuck am I, some novelist killing time writing occasionally about music, and yet astonishingly the list appeared, and it appeared without further comment, which is really excellent, and exactly in the spirit of this album, and the list is far better than I could ever have hoped, and it’s exactly like Bowie, at least in my understanding of him, impulsive, intuitive, haunted, astringent, and incredibly ambitious in the matter of the arts; Bowie is a conceptual artist, it seems to me, who just happens to work in the popular song, and he wants to make work that goes somewhere new, and this is amply demonstrated by the list.

What I propose here is that I use the list to make a few observations about the incredible excellence of The Next Day, as a way of explaining what I think he’s after, or as a way of collaborating with the ideas in play, and in this way will a really great album be illuminated, given the opportunity to blossom further, later into the season, etc.

Rick Moody
The Rumpus

Bowie’s list was presented with no further explanation, serving to both illuminate the album and increase his enigma.

Although he gave no indication that the words related to individual songs, it was soon noted that the list of 42 was divisible by the 14 tracks on the album, and the lyrical themes in the songs do appear to correspond with the sequence of the list.

Effigies
Indulgences
Anarchist
‘The Next Day’
Violence
Chthonic
Intimidation
‘Dirty Boys’
Vampyric
Pantheon
Succubus
‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’
Hostage
Transference
Identity
‘Love Is Lost’
Mauer
Interface
Flittings
Isolation
Revenge
Osmosis
‘Valentine’s Day’
Crusade
Tyrant
Domination
‘If You Can See Me’
Indifference
Miasma
Pressgang
‘I’d Rather Be High’
Displaced
Flight
Resettlement
‘Boss Of Me’
Funereal
Glide
Trace
‘Dancing Out In Space’
Balkan
Burial
Reverse
‘How Does The Grass Grow?’
Manipulate
Origin
Text
‘(You Will) Set The World On Fire’
Traitor
Urban
Comeuppance
‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’
Tragic
Nerve
Mystification
‘Heat’
I was really excited to speak to this list, and to apply this list to the songs of The Next Day, but the very first thing I had to do was simply to enjoy the list, because it’s a great list, and it has the word chthonic on it, and this is one of my very favorite words, and you have to admit, additionally, chthonic is a great word, and all art that is chthonic is excellent art, and art that has nothing chthonic about it, like, let’s say, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” that is art that’s hard to withstand.

But in this case, when Bowie says chthonic, it’s obvious he’s not just aspiring to chthonic, the album has death in nearly every song, and Bowie, after the angioplasty, can deploy his word choice with a newfound sense of confidence, though we can wish that this were not the case, we can wish that the artist didn’t have to suffer. But confidence is always a good thing as regards the intricacies of lyrical composition, and so chthonic has personal heft behind it, as does isolation, which is a word a lot like Isolar, the name of David Bowie’s management enterprise, and there’s also vampyric, succubus, violence, funereal, effigies, and burial, just in case the chthonic part were not clear enough, as well as hostage, manipulation, traitor, and the incredibly grim resettlement.

And there, near the close, is the difficult if not impossible to use word tragic. But I’m jumping the gun a bit.

Rick Moody
The Rumpus