'The Next Day' by David Bowie: the brilliant emptiness
and horror of abandonment
 

A few months ago I visited the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, not with a particular exhibition in mind but just to see what other artists do. The exposition on the ground floor was boring: mostly pretentious and empty, with the exception of two or three works (I do not appreciate artworks which must have an explanation or which are engaged in an intellectual play with a chain of endless references to references). On the upper floor, however, I noticed something that instantly made me feel excitement and joy: the sculpture of two deer running together, composed with transparent glass balls of various sizes. I am from a northern country and this sculpture brought up memories of the New Year, reindeers, New Years’ tree decorations, snow, frost, the fairytale of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Snow Queen” – in one word, the joy of my childhood and homeland. And the closeness of the two deer, I thought, symbolized love and tenderness.

However, the longer I looked at the sculpture the less became my joy. The sense arose that “something is very wrong”. I attempted to look into one of the glass balls and saw something that I could not identify but something vaguely deathly. “It is not a sculpture but two dead animals!, I suddenly realized. Not believing myself I went to read the “explanatory note” which said:

"Kohei Nawa, ‘PixCell-Double Deer #4' One of Japan’s most significant young artists, Kohei Nawa is renowned for his PixCell sculptures, one of which featured in The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art exhibition and on the catalogue cover, proving enormously popular with visitors. In this later work from the series, two taxidermied deer are fused together and covered in glass and acrylic beads. The mutated form of the animals is fractured and distorted through the images captured inside the spheres, transforming it into particles of deconstructed light and dramatically changing our perception of the original creatures.”

Later I saw the short video in which the author was saying the same postmodern rubbish which “explains” anything only to those who suffer the atrophy of the inborn sense of what is good and what is evil. One can call and “explain” the sculpture whatever way one wishes but the name and explanation cannot cancel the raw impact which it makes on a person who refuses to correct her intuition by the booklets written by art critics. I saw two deer beautifully glowing, bringing the memories of the northern New Year, fairytale, and love and then discovered that it was all fake which covered death – all this done for nothing, probably out of the inner emptiness of the author and certainly because of the expectations of the art critics and ‘gallerists’. 

What is interesting here is that now, when I know about the dead bodies under the glass beads, I cannot return this joy of the first sight at that sculpture. Worse even – occasionally, when I think about the winters in my northern country, the unfortunate image of death under glass pops up in my mind. The sculpture parasitized my memories. It created a fake joy, then mocked and destroyed it, and then polluted my memories. This is evil. Whatever the ‘explanationists’ say it is evil to make a fake and take the best in others away.

I do not think that the author had the grand idea of destroying goodness by evil means. Most likely, this work was born of emptiness, a doomed desire to do “something original”. Doomed because it is impossible to create anything “original” for its own sake – the vision gives the shape, not vise versa.  

* * *

I recall ‘Pixcell Deer’ now, when I am breaking my mind over analyzing the layers under layers under yet another layer in ‘The Next Day’ by David Bowie, my number one rock musician of many years. My first listening of the album was “Yes! Yes, David, you got it, bastard! Genius! Great!” My first impressions were, chronologically:
- So synesthetic!
[1]  
- Musically it is great, inhumanely great
- Love, mortality, loneliness – all excellently done
- Very honest, perhaps most honest of all his albums
- The man is hiding behind the instrumentals
- How great it is to be so creative in sixty six (not that I thought it is impossible but it is quite rare in the world of rock music). I felt also stupidly perked up, along the lines “I am forty four – there is a hope for some productive years ahead”.

Thus the first level of impression was the glow of excitement. So exciting and synesthetic was the album that I painted a visual response to each song – seventeen pictures over one hour, being in a state (as I understand now) of semi-trance. It was easy – Bowie seemed to paint with the sounds, I only needed to translate it. Then I listened to the album again, and again, and again. And then other layers, hidden under the “into your face, all over, overly vigorous energy”, began to surface.

First appeared the vague sense that something was wrong, something was hidden there, behind the gushing fountains of creative energy. Strangely, I could not remember a single track, i.e. I could not distinguish any, like, for example, in his album “Low” where I could remember the distinctive character of each track after just one listen. Matching this impression, the tracks on the album flow one after another almost without pause, like a stream in which there is no better or worse song, not because they are all of equal quality but because they came from the realm beyond “better” and “worse” categories. The whole album, apart from the song “Where Are We Now?” is very loud, vigorous and makes an impression that its author was silent for ages, became bottled up, and now is releasing into space all that he has accumulated with a kind of triumphant, almost sadistic “here! – got it?”

At that stage only the inhumane evenness of the album puzzled me but then I noticed a strange transformation within myself. I felt that the album was getting into my mind and not in a pleasant way – I felt that the misty emotions of tracks become mine and began developing in my mind, acquiring new flesh and blood, my blood. I looked at the seventeen pictures I made. They were very unusual for me: full of formal ideas but very impersonal. I could not relate to them at all. I could also not remember them when I did not look at them, just as I could not remember the separate tracks of the album.   

I began paying attention to the lyrics (it is difficult – the instrumentals obscure the voice, still a very fine voice I must say, with its charm of previous years almost untouched). I soon identified a scratchy mismatch of the poetry and the music: musical anxiety, seemingly addressed to a lover – hellish poetry (‘If You Can See Me’; stupidly simple naiveté of music – sinister, murderous poetry conveyed not so much by the words but by what was behind the words (‘Valentines Day’). I am not talking here about the normal mismatch of form and content employed by an artist to deliver his message in the most cutting, most effective way (I myself use it) but something else – the pleasure of fooling a listener, the pleasure of giving her an impression of something humane – terrible perhaps but essentially humane and then swapping it with mockery and deadness, bleak gloom. Before I realized it I was already infected by the darkness of the album. Trusting its author and also having my own, carefully controlled darkness, I was easily overtaken by his brilliant, truly great in its perfection work. It is not an exaggeration to say that I became possessed by the new Bowie of ‘The Next Day’. To my surprise, I soon began swinging between (perceived as mine) unbound greatness and pangs of existential despair. The greatness was sparse and sparkly – a gloomy demon producing black diamonds in the darkness, the despair was a solid background. I became indifferent to God and this fact alarmed me. Soon I found myself walking the burnt terrains of total loneliness, helplessness, and godlessness.

I pulled out the leaflet and read the lyrics. To read them is as difficult as to listen: the CD design matches the vocals, the leaflet with lyrics is hiding the words – there are no breaks between the texts of the songs, and the type is the most unreadable yellow on a brown background. The lines of ‘If you can see me I can see you’ hit me hard:

I could wear your new blue shoes
I should wear your old red dress
And walk to the crossroads
So take this knife
And meet me across the river
Just shoots and ladders and this is the kiss
American anna fantasticalsation
From nowhere to nothing
And I go way back
Children swarm like thousands of bugs
Towards the lights the beacons above the hill
The stars to the West, the South, the North
And to the East
Now you could say I've got a gift of sorts
A fear of rear windows and swinging doors
A love of violence a dread of sighs
If you can see me I can see you
If you can see me I can see you
I have seen these bairns wave their fists at God
Swear to destroy the beasts stamping the ground
In their excitement for tomorrow
I could wear your new blue shoes
I should wear your old red dress
And walk to the crossroads
So take this knife
And meet me across the river
I will take your lands and all that lays beneath
The dust of cold flowers prison of dark of ashes
I will slaughter your kind who descend from belief
I am the spirit of greed a lord of theft
I'll burn all your books and the problems they make
If you can see me I can see you
If you can see me

I am neither a poet nor a musician, I am an artist and theologian, my primary field is visual art and the Scriptures, especially where the Scriptures and art overlap, like icon painting. By the very nature of my profession, I am far from a literal understanding of art and poetry. The quotes and interpretations below are given not to prove anything but to illustrate my journey through ‘The Next Day’:

“Children swarm like thousands of bugs
Towards the lights the beacons above the hill”
“Children swarm like thousands of bugs” sounds evil to me, like something that shouldn’t be said. Why it is so I cannot explain, just a sense – thousand bugs, even if they swarm “towards the lights”, bring to my mind insects coming onto a corpse. “Beacons” looks like a formal excuse to me here.

Next, a somewhat Biblical landscape:
“I will take your lands and all that lays beneath”
It is very reminiscent of the books of the prophets, in words but not in spirit. This spirit is cold and impersonal.

”The dust of cold flowers prison of dark of ashes
I will slaughter your kind who descend from belief
I am the spirit of greed a lord of theft
I'll burn all your books and the problems they make
If you can see me I can see you
If you can see me”
I see in my mind: the plains of Judea, the voice is not the voice of God but of Antichrist, reference to the extermination of humanity in the concentration camps, threats to “slaughter your kind who descend from belief” – i.e, all believing in God, “I am the spirit of greed a lord of theft” – Satan’s self-portrait,  and the most frightening “If you can see me I can see you If you can see me” – addressed not to a woman as I thought before the lyrics became clear to me (as I naively thought this is a plea for “seeing him – a man – as he is”) – the words of Satan which cannot be explained but can be understood experientially by those who follow a path of faith. This is how I see and feel it, and my vision is based not just on the words but my intuition and free association as well. And even if I am mistaken about the concrete details (Judea, concentration camps, etc) the overall message remains inhumane, rotten, and infernal.

I am going to make a conclusion which is worthy of the most fanatical Bible basher: this is not the voice of Bowie but of the evil channeling its message through him. Other songs are a mixture, some less, some more. The majority of them I believe were written by the method of automatism[2], in a trance-like state, and this is why the text escapes the grasp (I do not mean logical understanding but intuitive) – because there is no real man behind them or, better to say, the man was greatly aided and occasionally subdued by other forces. This is what makes this album so different: not the murky poetry but the partial or complete absence of an author in flesh and blood. I do not have the slightest problem with understanding his ‘Station to station’ lyrics for example; further more, if I do not understand something I feel there is something there but there is mostly nothing here, I repeat, absolutely nothing personal. Bowie seems to appear in the song ‘Where are we now?”, the most humane of the album. He is very vulnerable, almost naked there. He occasionally surfaces for a moment in other songs and has quite a solid presence in ‘Heat’, gloomily repeating ‘I don’t know who I am’; the gloomy confusion is slowly transforming into pure gloom with sadomasochistic resignation. Other songs are automatically written verses and brilliant music although somewhat inhumanely-impersonal.

To sum up the structure of the songs of ‘The Next Day’: there is a superficial cheerful-angry/ energetic/ vigorous layer, then – the gloomy stories perceived by an ear, then – deep heavy sounds combined with the true story detectable only while reading the lyrics often despite them, then – mosaics of voices of various authors, and then, at last – the power engine, the ultimate force. I believe that force to be his existential rage.

It is impossible to justify my conclusion without talking about the personality of the author. I am reluctant to do this because, besides usual ethical considerations, for me David Bowie has been a very important artist for many years; his previous works have stimulated my own creativity. He became a figure of reference for me just like Klee or Munch therefore I cannot treat him just as an object of analysis.

I suspect that the heart attack which Bowie suffered ten years ago crushed him. The first brush with own mortality after blissfully oblivious years of youth is shattering for anyone but it is particularly shattering for people of Bowie’s kind: eternally-youthful because a substantial part of them has never grown up. Because of various unfortunate circumstances of their childhood, the real Self (the core) of such people is stopped in its development/ impaired. Thus they do not learn how to relate to this world through their real Selves as most people do but have to develop false selves for the purpose of survival. I suspect that Bowie employed his various stage images as personas through which he very effectively related to the world – outwardly related, his core (Self) not involved at all. He himself stated that often he could not tell where the persona finishes and where he really begins. A constant stream of people around him, feverish super-productivity, perfectionism – I could name and analyze many telling features but it is not necessary because I am not attempting to “diagnose” but am only describing my impression of an extremely lonely, extremely alien-like, fragile and irresistibly charming individual who, it seems to me, derived vital juices from self-created personas and people around him. Bowie existed moving from one ethereal persona to another, higher and higher up to almost artistic omnipotence (which in his case of relating to the world through his personas created an illusion of omnipotence in life), until he was stopped by that very real and brutal blow. It is well known that many people begin thinking seriously about themselves and existential matters after a crushing event of some kind which challenges their habitual existence. In Bowie’s case the horror of closeness to death was made far worse by the realization that neither his personas could save him nor could he create a new one, apt to protect him. One can withstand the reality of death drawing upon his true Self; for a person who does not know his Self it is impossible. It is possible to scream to God though out of emptiness but it is hard to submit oneself to God after so many years of being a god.

I imagine all those emotions, from “How could it happen to me?” and “How can I be old?” to “I am mortal, why am I here, what is all this about – was it all fake?”, and then the realization of ultimate abandonment, self-abandonment in inevitably coming death. And I also remember the video for that absolutely heart-breaking song “Where are we now?” which made me cry bitterly. A very little hope, the memories of youth, love and humane pain will soon be swallowed by the unbound rage and hatred of other songs.

Bowie is quite honest. Occasionally he is trying to hang onto memories while knowing that he and those whom he loved are doomed. He is cursing youth, hope, and life as such, he sees death everywhere he looks. There is no luxury of the simple joy of seeing a new flower or a young woman: behind everything is rot and stench, just like it is behind the beautiful forms of his songs. He is raging about the absurd of this revolting, doomed to rot universe and existential mockery of some kind so the album is totally devoid of light. He does not have anything to say apart from “I hate you all, I’ll kill you all” and “I don’t know who I am”.  The subjects of the songs seem only to serve the purpose of shouting his rage and hatred into the world therefore they appear to be secondary, superficial. Actually, they are not needed at all – Bowie is merely using them, filling the gaps around a few personal words with automatically written lyrics. The music is another matter: it is not hiding behind the shells of the “stories” but openly screams his emotions aloud. This is why it is so brilliant.

My week of existing within ‘The Next Day’ was heartbreaking and very much unlike seeing the sculpture of the deer mentioned in the beginning. The sculpture was a pure heartless evil, a creation of an impotent mind; this album is the extremely potent mix of personal existential despair and evil trying to channel himself through the voice of the desperate and genuinely brilliant man. The contrast between the man of ‘The Next Day’ and various imaginative personas of previous years is striking. Strangely enough, this man made those personas to pale, probably because he is real and true to himself at last.

While realizing how much damage ‘The Next Day’ can do to those people familiar with life experiences similar to Bowie’s I feel pain for the author. I wish to tell him that his current emptiness, rage, fear, hatred and despair are not all that he is. I know that it is impossible to believe that there is something else, inside or outside, while one is in that hellish state of abandonment depression. However, I also know that it is impossible to create (various personas included) having nothing inside. Genuine creativity is the way of the Self to communicate breaking through the false one. I do hope that the author will find his true Self, vital and timeless, made in the image of the Ultimate Creator. I wish it to happen rather soon.


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[1] From synesthesia, a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a colour.

[2] A method for writing material that does not come from the conscious thoughts of the writer.