Today I was finally in position to do something I thought I'd never do. Something that music lovers have been doing for four decades. I was able to buy a new David Bowie album on its day of release!
I'm quite wary of listening to it. I hate listening to things for the first time. I never trust my first impressions. They're far too tempered by prejudice, precedence and expectation. I much prefer the curve of gradual appreciation and the ultimate feeling of warm familiarity to the shock of the new. This doesn't mean that I'm adverse to trying new things. It's just that I cannot think of a single album that means anything to me that clicked immediately on the first listen. It takes time to absorb and inhabit music. The first listen isn't something to be treasured. It's something to get over with as soon as possible.
So I don't want to comment on David Bowie's new album just yet. Nothing I say now can be at all trusted. But if you're really interested in what I think, come back to me in a month or two.
I do believe, though, that there aren't enough hours of existence remaining for me to ever learn to love the album cover.
The Next Day has one of the worst album covers I've ever seen. A crude white box placed over the iconic “Heroes” imagery. Whilst the image underneath has a lovely silvery sheen to it, this still looks like the sort of thing that could easily have been produced on MS Paint in less than a minute.
Things improve a little on the inside. There's a black-on-black square that reminds me of the sort of designs that adorn Autechre albums. It contrasts nicely with the white square on the CD itself, creating a sort of triptych with Bowie's moody disembodied head in the middle.
The lyrics are printed on a colourful fold-out that somewhat resembles one of those posters you used to get in those brown bags dotted around Manchester. In fact, on the inside The Next Day is really quite beautifully designed. Which makes me wonder – what was he thinking with that cover?
It may be awful to look at, but I don't think it's devoid of meaning. The cover is horrible, but the inside is striking. Is this a “comment” on the album itself? A sort of “don't judge a book by its cover” message?
Or is it a sad statement concerning the phasing-out of physical formats in favour of digital? As a collection of MP3s, The Next Day's cover will only ever appear as a small inscrutable square on a media player. Does Bowie think that people have stopped pouring over album covers? Did he see no point in putting any effort into album covers if they're ostensibly going to be ignored?
Most likely, the cover of The Next Day is probably supposed to represent some kind of interplay between the past and the present, or between perception and reality. I wonder if these themes are covered in the lyrics?
This is why I don't like initial listens and why I don't trust first-impressions. There's always too much to take-in.
In any case, the cover of The Next Day is not exactly unprecedented. For one thing, it can be listed alongside Earthling and certain editions of Lodger as an album on which Bowie's face doesn't appear on the cover. Similarly, the artwork of 2002's Heathen featured swathes of paint thrown against canvasses and pages torn from books. The only difference, really, is that here Bowie's sabotaging his own work rather than that of another artist.
So whilst the cover of The Next Day is hideous, it's by no means without meaning. I therefore don't think it can necessarily be described as “lazy” or “throwaway”. Just "ugly" and "unappealing".
As for the relative merits of the music? I can't wait to find out!