David Bowie has been the epitome of cool for decades and has issued the first new evidence of his majesty in a decade with The Next Day, an album offering more of his unique brand of intelligence and wit in the form of songs offering his ideas in narratives and impressionist word play and fantastical soundscapes.
Bowie surprisingly makes it impossible to ignore his history with this new album before we've heard a note. What are we to make of the cover art? It's the cover of his 1977 classic "Heroes" with the words "The Next Day" superimposed over it. Does he mean to suggest this is a sequel to that album, or somehow linked to it, a return to that time? Is he just fucking with us? You won't find an answer. He's not telling. This is, after all, David Bowie.
As we turn to the music we find out it's probably a bit of both, with Bowie remaining inscrutable in his motives and intentions and yet being musically self-referential when it pleases him. The album closer, "Heat," opens with a music bed that would have comfortably fit on "Heroes" or any of the other so-called "Berlin Trilogy" albums. "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" ends with the distinct, syncopated drum riff from the Ziggy Stardust track "Five Years." "If You Can See Me" has shades of Scary Monsters and Earthling and there are even a few nods to his '80s era circa Let's Dance, such as "Dancing Out In Space" and "How Does The Grass Grow."
It's important to realize none of these possible allusions feel self-conscious or forced nor do they reek of desperate attempts to recapture past glories. He is and has always been an idea incubator, one who covered a vast musical and theatrical terrain throughout his phenomenal career. He sounds like a man following his instinct, presenting ideas without concern for how critics and fans might attempt to connect the dots. It's okay if a song or moment reminds you of something from his past because he's done it all. Take from it what you will because there is a lot offered.
There's more to this record than revisiting moments of past eras, as much of The Next Day sounds like a record he could have made a year after his last, Reality as opposed to 10 years later. In those moments and throughout the record, he is a visionary in command of his still-strong voice, executing ideas with no need to create a persona or alternate universe for them to exist.
The title track is a stomping rocker filled with fantastic imagery of bodies being left to decay in hollow trees and the supernatural, "They know God exists for the devil told them so." "Dirty Boys" is a depraved piece of music with a start-stop riff built on snarling guitars, punctuated by filthy blasts of baritone sax. Bowie sings the ballad and first single "Where Are We Now?" with wistful elegance and rises to the challenge of anthems like "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)." He is at peak vocal power on the aching "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die."
What this adds up to is a complete, quintessential David Bowie record. That should be more than enough to make it worth your attention, but this is also a really good David Bowie record- maybe even a great one. There is excess with 14 songs on the standard edition and 17 on the deluxe but isn't excess central to what makes him the artist he is? It has to be embraced and welcomed. He and longtime producer Tony Visconti have softened some edges a tad too much, tailoring the sound for these ideas to coexist.
It's clear David Bowie has not come close to exhausting his creative capacity. We waited 10 years for The Next Day; let's hope he doesn't make us wait 10 years for the next album.