A problem when discussing The Next Day as a complete work is that it isn’t quite one. Four versions of the album exist, as of today: the original 14-track CD/download; the “deluxe” edition, with three additional tracks (also the sequence of the 2-LP set); the Japanese issue, which adds another bonus track to the deluxe set; and The Next Day Extra, which includes a second CD with the aforesaid bonus tracks, plus four “new” bonus tracks and two alternate mixes. Bowie’s likely not done with it yet.
So it’s wound up a sprawling group of songs. Had Bowie released all of these tracks together in the analog age, he would’ve had a 3-LP set to rival George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (and Next Day has a similar “back catalog clearout sale” feel to it). But Bowie’s taken advantage of the download/streaming era to erode the concept of a final, static “album.” The Next Day is more a fluctuating set of assorted tracks, its sequence owed to each listener’s budget or interest.
A track like “Dancing Out in Space,” in a tighter time, may have been slotted as a B-side or even scrapped, just another outtake in the vaults. Now it’s scattered on the floor with the rest of the toys: perhaps overlooked but still there, shining in its way.
What to say about it? It’s a well-made minor song. Its verses mainly shuttle between G major and E minor; its refrains are pegged on sets of parallel steps (on the “ooooohs”), first Db to Eb to C major, then Ab to Bb back to the verse’s G major. There’s a lassitude in its construction, with long stretches between vocals where nothing much happens.
An octave-doubled Bowie sings in a tone of jaunty hysteria, with a vocal arrangement that includes a touch of doo-wop bass in the refrains. Gerry Leonard and David Torn’s guitars are wintry colors; Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford rumble up a subdued “Lust For Life” beat for the refrains; the synthetic “harmonica” fills reek of 1988; a faint suggestion of piano shivers through the track’s last seconds.
The lyric, haunted by water imagery, can also seem like a set of Bowie crossword clues. The city of solid iron: Ferropolis, the German open-air excavator museum? Detroit? Bowie’s lover being as “silent as Georges Rodenbach“ could nod to the Symbolist writer’s Bruges-la-Morte, in which a man obsesses over a woman he believes is his late wife (the novel would influence Hitchcock’s Vertigo a half-century later).* Or maybe it’s Rodenbach’s ultra-Romantic tombstone in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, in which a patina bronze nude seems to be languorously rising from the grave, clutching a rose.
Call it a love song about a beautiful death (to dance out in space is to expire out in space, like a drowning swimmer), set in a shuttered world, like Rodenbach’s Bruges (a port city that lost its sea). Recall that Bowie used “vampyric,” “succubus” and “chthonic” to describe the album to the novelist Rick Moody. Rodenbach would’ve been flattered, though he may have raised an elegant eyebrow at Bowie rhyming “ghost” with “ghost.”
Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, The Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.
Top: “In Sappho We Trust,” ” ‘Nysnc at Madame Tussaud’s, New York,” 2012.
* Translated literally as Bruges-the-Dead and more euphoniously as The Dead City, it was the basis for Korngold’s 1920 opera Die Tote Stadt. There was something of a Rodenbach revival in the 2000s, with some fresh English translations issued, which possibly caught Bowie’s interest.