So THAT’S how you stage a comeback. The last time we heard from David Bowie was in September 2003 – a world, lest we forget, with no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube and where iTunes was only six months old – with the Reality album. And since then, after a heart attack onstage in Germany, it’s been pretty much silence, with most people presuming that one of the most influential artists of his generation had quietly slipped into retirement.
Not so. Bowie’s 24th studio album was recorded in secret over the past couple of years in New York until, on his 66th birthday in January this year, an elegiac ballad, Where Are We Now, was suddenly released online together with information about a forthcoming album – which ended up being officially streamed on iTunes a couple of weeks before its release. It was official – the Thin White Duke was back.
Where Are We Now turns out to be a classy piece of misdirection. When heard out of the context of the album, it sounded like a resigned swansong – a gorgeously sad and wistful number, with plenty of references to the location of that career highpoint, Berlin – which, together with the album artwork (the cover of “Heroes” with a white square covering Bowie’s face) was impossible not to take as some sort of meta-commentary on his own life and work. Had Bowie followed the example of Johnny Cash, and recorded a stately, majestic farewell address?
That notion is displaced as soon as the first chords of the opening title track burst into life, and continues through the 14 songs that make up the Tony Visconti-produced The Next Day. This is the sound of a man reborn, sounding urgent, vital and full of life – and while there are plenty of nods back to previous Bowie eras throughout the record, both musically and lyrically, the overwhelming sense is one of an artist moving forward, embracing everything that’s made him so iconic to create an album that stands up there with his best.
For, although it’s become somewhat of a cliche to describe a new Bowie album as “his best since Scary Monsters & Super Creeps”, The Next Day really is that good. In the past, a ‘return to form’ meant ‘this is probably better than Never Let Me Down’. With this album, it genuinely does compare, at least in terms of quality if not cultural impact, to “Heroes”, Aladdin Sane, Low and all the rest.
Like all of Bowie’s best material, The Next Day is strange, otherworldly and eccentric, but imbued with some gorgeous melodies. Early word had compared it with latter-day Scott Walker, and while there are undoubtedly certain vocal similarities (especially on the closing track, the ghostly, eerie Heat), this is nowhere near as avant-garde – and, let’s face it, as difficult to listen to – as Tilt or Bish Bosch can be. Tracks like You Will Set The World On Fire, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die and especially The Stars (Are Out Tonight) are fairly bursting with an energy that sticks in the mind hours after the first listen.
That latter track is probably more representative of The Next Day than Where Are We Now, although stylistically it bounces around all the place. There’s the life-affirming stomp of the title track (with its chorus as a knowing statement of intent – “Here I am, not quite dying”), the knowingly sleazy air, including bursts of saxophone, of Dirty Boys and, in one of the standouts of the album, the beautifully soaring 60s pop of Valentine’s Day which sounds like Bowie’s stepped into a time machine just to revisit his heyday.
Lyrically, there’s much to ponder. As well as the mentions of Berlin and various mediation on mortality, there’s nods to the political on I’d Rather Be High, with a chorus of “I’d rather be dead or out of my head, than training these guns on those men in the sand”, while The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is a portrait of celebrity culture, with tales of “Kate and Brad from behind their tinted window stretch, gleaming like blackened sunshine”. Even the sweet harmonies of the aforementioned Valentine’s Day are counter-balanced by lyrics that appear to reference a high school shooting.
Most of all though, this is Bowie simply sounding like he’s having the time of his life in the studio again. No doubt it’s helped by the fact he’s surrounded by his long-term band (including long-standing fixtures Gail Ann Dorsey and Earl Slick, together with legendary producer Tony Visconti) and it’s resulted in an album of warmth and effortless confidence. It’s a record not just full of individual highlights – the Jack White-style burst of guitar at the start of You Will Set The World On Fire, the doomy rock of Love Is Lost and the theatrical, melodic nod to Drive In Saturday that is You Feel So Lonely You Could Die – but also one which works as a thrillingly cohesive whole.
It may well be that a change is as good as a rest, but David Bowie’s gone through more than his fair share of changes over the years. This may have been a particularly long rest, but he’s come back sounding like a new man. The release of The Next Day would have been one of the biggest stories of the year no matter what its quality – the fact that it also happens to be one of the best records of Bowie’s career to date just makes the comeback that much more triumphant.