BowieNextDay.jpgDAVID BOWIE: The Next Day
Iso / Columbia, 53 minutes
Rating: 3.5/5

David Bowie’s 24th album The Next Day is a threefold surprise: it was announced without warning this past January, arrives almost a decade after Reality (2003) — at a time when albums are at their lowest value as commercial product, no less — and evokes past Bowie modes while replicating none. When all’s said and done, it’s a fairly straightforward and agreeable rock album, thus one of the most unexpected of Bowie’s career given its precarious position as his (possible? probable?) final musical statement.

There are no revelations or new personas to be found here, just a man left to work with his tools one last time. Above its often ominous words and existentially faceless album cover, it’s a superficially upbeat affair. The whirling “I’d Rather Be High” sounds downright joyous if you abstain from reading its bleak, antiwar lyrics. “Dirty Boys” paints a dire portrait of delinquency against a lascivious, sax-aided blues beat. “Dancing Out in Space” and “Love is Lost” are darker inverses of Bowie’s biggest commercial success Let’s Dance (1983).

But the deeper you go into The Next Day, the more its recurrent themes of death and violence emerge (“Valentine’s Day” obliquely covers a mass shooting, the title track is more about waking up to the same old anguish than some new hope). I’ll leave it up to Bowie experts to fathom what it means in the context of his failing health and sudden, brief (he may never perform live again) reemergence in the spotlight. All I can say with certainty is that, in the wake of his eventual expiration, The Next Day will be warmly remembered among his sea of masterworks. 

ClaptonSock.jpgERIC CLAPTON: Old Sock
Surfdog, 54 minutes
Rating: 1.5/5

Across his 20 solo albums, Eric Clapton has included cover songs drawn from varying, often unrelated genres. But even by his own standards of disparateness, Old Sock is incoherent as fuck. It’s a 67-year-old white guy’s iPod shuffle manifested as baby-boomer product, made without focus or vision.

With one easy payment you’ll get Clapton singing theatrical ballads (“The Folks Who Live On the Hill,” popularized by Irene Dunn, the Gershwins’ “Our Love is Here to Stay”), blues / folk standards (“Goodnight Irene”), reggae jams (Peter Tosh’s “Till Your Well Runs Dry”) and tracks ostensibly written by his backing band (“Gotta Get Over,” “Every Little Thing”) among other oddities.

Before you get too excited, be forewarned Clapton doesn’t really adapt his approach to suit the songs; most are run through the same soft-rock machinery and spat out like beige lumps of sound. Without proper context most listeners would have no way of knowing they were written decades apart, some in widely different geographic and cultural circumstances.  

Only the album’s take on Ted Daffan’s country classic “Born to Lose” resembles its proper form, albeit performed with an appalling lack of enthusiasm by Clapton, the sleepy geriatric. Elsewhere, as on “Goodnight Irene,” one of the most powerful lamentations in pop music history, he gets no more worked up than he would be sending back the wrong dinner order.

It’s fitting that Clapton has named Old Sock after something dropped behind a washing machine and quickly forgotten about, ‘cause that’s what I’d like to do with it.

WaterLiarsCover.jpgWATER LIARS: Wyoming
Big Legal Mess / Fat Possum, 38 minutes
Rating: 4/5

As of yesterday morning, Water Liars’ Tumblr page featured photos of both John Wayne and a porno magazine, to give you some idea of the duality at work in their music. They’re from Mississippi and play country-rock music, but few of their contemporaries or influences have written songs as uncomfortably intimate as “Fake Heat,” in which a return to a lover’s bedroom is punctuated by the narrator finding “some condoms in the garbage with a letter from her father.”

Like the rest of the duo’s second album Wyoming, “Fake Heat” is as lovesick as anything on your daddy’s Johnny Cash and Buck Owens records, with an added undercurrent of anxiety. You could trace the couples dance of “Cut a Line” back for decades, until its final minute, when Andrew Bryant and Justin P. Kinkel-Schuster bring things up to a hair-raising volume and drive back its romanticism.

There are more accessible, traditional songs here but they are, unsurprisingly, less successful. “How Will I Call You” is a pleasant acoustic tune, while the short-and-sweet “Bird of Song” finds the band at its most spare. But even at its lowest points, Wyoming is always achingly beautiful, emphasis on the ache.

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