Today, on his 66th birthday, David Bowie announced he was set to release a new album, The Next Day — his 30th album and first in ten long years of radio silence — on March 12. Along with that announcement, Bowie dropped that album’s first single, “Where Are We Now?,” along with a self-referential and inward-looking video directed by Tony Oursler about aging and mortality.
Both the video and the song itself contain both visual and musical allusions to Bowie’s experimental “Berlin” era from the mid-1970s, which yielded the famed records Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
And if you have seen the album art for Bowie’s latest album, you’ll easily recognize its use of the familiar cover to Heroes, which obscures this classic black and white portrait of Bowie with a giant white box, with simple typography of the album’s title The Next Step. In the upper right corner, you’ll notice that Heroes is lined out.
This album cover could come off as some kind of silly meta joke, but once I thought about it, it really works.
To me, Bowie has come off as a iconoclastic figure always moving forward, abandoning the old for something fresh and new — be it his visual personae and fashion sense, or his ever-evolving musical styles and genre-pushing experimentation. Here, and what appears to be for the first time, Bowie seems to be looking backward — tapping into an older sound and hinting at the reflexive mood of this as-of-yet unheard collection of songs.
Yet with the boxed-out face, there’s a sense of detachment from the old Bowie. In a superb, and creatively illuminating self-Q&A on the Virusfonts website , Jonthan Barnbrook, the designer of the album art, says the art implies not so much an homage, but a visual representation of trying to make room for the new.
“Normally using an image from the past means, ‘recycle’ or ‘greatest hits’ but here we are referring to the title The Next Day. The “Heroes” cover obscured by the white square is about the spirit of great pop or rock music which is ‘of the moment’, forgetting or obliterating the past.
Barnbrook also says that the cover acknowledges that, despite our best efforts to move ahead we cannot lose our past:
“…no matter how much we try, we cannot break free from the past. When you are creative, it manifests itself in every way – it seeps out in every new mark you make (particularly in the case of an artist like Bowie). It always looms large and people will judge you always in relation to your history, no matter how much you try to escape it. The obscuring of an image from the past is also about the wider human condition; we move on relentlessly in our lives to the next day, leaving the past because we have no choice but to.”
Album covers may have sort of lost some of their real estate since the move to digital — where they are often only seen as tiny icons rather than detailed artistic statements. But there seems to be something of a resurgence in the importance of artwork as a way to convey a mood and instill a feeling about the music. Reading about the amount of effort and provocative thought that went into designing this deconstructed, albeit completely silly concept for such an extraordinary musician as David Bowie is endlessly fascinating.
(All that said, I cannot wait for someone to construct a Sleeveface photo of this album cover. Or one of those endlessly mirrored reflections where the cover infinitely loops inside of itself. Or for people to start imitating this concept on other classic album covers. Some enterprising young go-getter should get on that stat!)