Friday, March 22, 2013

A Week in Halifax & A Review of 'The Next Day' by David Bowie

Children's favourite Theodore the Tugboat sits in the Halifax harbour on an overcast Sunday morning.

Reading Week in Halifax

I had the privilege of spending the last week of February visiting a good friend in Halifax during his Reading Week. The trip took on particular significance for me because it marked my first steps into the unknown after leaving the marketing job I held for 2 and a half years with a Toronto based company.

I've always believed in the power of reinvention, and Montreal is a good place indeed to reinvent yourself. Quebec really is the 'Unique Society' because for all of the language confusion and bureaucracy, there is plenty of human warmth here - at least that's what I find in Montreal. I'm starting down the road to reinvention now, as I have a new job. So far it's going quite well.

Back to Halifax. My friend Phil was kind enough to let me stay at his place in the downtown core. Conveniently, it was close to where the airport bus let me off. Of course, as I soon discovered, everything is close to everything else in Halifax! I was there years ago with my parents to see the Tall Ships, but I had not returned to the Maritimes until a few weeks ago.

Taking a ferry ride from Dartmouth back to Halifax proper after dark was a real highlight of the trip for me. As was wandering around Point Pleasant Park on the south tip of the Island. I also logged a few hours at one of Dalhousie University's libraries, all the better for getting work done (on vacation, no less!) Eating seafood at a restaurant named Phil's Seafood (no joke) was another memorable experience.

Next time I go adventuring in Nova Scotia I feel a camping trip is in order. Cities are great, but as I get older I'm finding that I become more and more interested in nature. If anyone knows of good camping locations in the Halifax area, please leave a comment and let me know. I always like to get several ideas together, then do my research before I travel. Especially something like a camping trip, which, as every former Scout knows, requires you to Be Prepared.

David Bowie Takes Us Into The Next Day

Your country's new

Your friends are new

Your house and even your eyes are new

Your maid is new and your accent too

But your fear is as old as the world - Love is Lost, David Bowie

Welcome back David Bowie! There's at least one 66-year-old on the planet who isn't afraid to surprise the world with an album that's dark, relevant, and rocking — all at the same time. When most musicians of Bowie's generation would be content to do a covers album (Phil Collins) or a greatest hits tour (Peter Gabriel - I write this with flattery as I saw his Back to Front show and loved it) Bowie decided to surprise everyone with something new and unexpected.

Apparently he was working on The Next Day in New York City for 2 and a half years, keeping the musicians and everyone else involved in the project bound by a strict confidentiality contract during the album's recording. And they all kept silent. 

Until last January, when Bowie released Where Are We Now? the first single from The Next Day, on his 66th birthday.

I've had The Next Day playing in my apartment every day for the last week, so I think my brain is saturated enough with the Thin White Duke's new soundscape for me to write a proper review. 

First, it's certainly a David Bowie album. Uneven offerings have always been part of his signature. While tracks like The Stars (Are Out Tonight) and Valentine's Day seduce the listener with smartly written lyrics and solid musicianship, other songs, such as If You Can See Me, goes nowhere with its repetitive lyrics.

However, on the whole, The Next Day is absolutely worth a second listen and several encores. Aging, death, school shootings, lost love, fear — the dark side is on full display here. And this time Major Tom isn't hiding the darkness with one of his personas. The songs and their themes are all the more powerful for coming from (I presume) a place of honesty.

I particularly dig the tracks Love is Lost and Boss of Me. The first is all snarling guitars, a steady drum rhythm, and a stellar organ track to Bowie singing about losing love, then losing your mind. Say goodbye to the thrills of life, Where love was good, no love was bad. This packs a hard punch in our age of information overload and alienation, both courtesy of the Internet and modern communication technologies. Leave it to the master of artifice and stagecraft to put his finger on what scares us witless.

The second track, Boss of Me, is a straight up rock n' roll love song. Kind of like the Rolling Stones' Under My Thumb, except here the roles are reversed. She has him under her thumb. There's also something about a small town dying in here. Read in to this as much as you want. I did. A lovely track.

I should mention that Bowie's delivery is better than ever. It's like the man's voice is some kind of delicious alcohol that has been aging in a barrel, or a ripe cheese. His vocals are rich and emotion filled. Superb work, Mr. Bowie.
Then there is the symbolism of the album's title and cover artwork. The Next Day features a basic white square slapped across the classic Heroes album cover from 1977. It's clearly a reference to Bowie's Berlin Trilogy (Low, "Heroes", and Lodger). Some of the songs have a similarity to that period; I believe he did this to pull his fans and others who pay attention to his work out of glossy nostalgia for what was, and into what is. The sun will set, and then rise again. The next day will always arrive.

The album's title and William Burroughs references, the song Dirty Boys clearly borrows from Burroughs' novel The Wild Boys, are a call to pay attention to the here and now. The Burroughs influence, also present in 1974's Diamond Dogs, suggests a future in ruin / world ending apocalypse. This would certainly make Bowie consistent for returning to a theme.

Turning my attention to the man himself, as of writing this he has not given a single media interview to promote the album. Nor has he announced any tour dates. His bandmates on The Next Day have suggested that in an age of social media oversharing and people 'living' through reading friends' status updates on Facebook, Bowie has opted to let the music speak for itself. It's certainly an interesting approach, but I, for one, would like to see this articulate space alien on a television near me.

Here's hoping this month brings a tour announcement. If Ziggy and his band come to Montreal you'll find me in the front row at the Centre Bell.

Merci. Until next time.

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