Prior to the occasion of his 66th birthday earlier this year, David Bowie had effectively disappeared. He had not released a new studio recording since 2003 and hadn’t been seen onstage since a heart attack cut short an extensive world tour a year later. Since then, the word on the atypically absent Bowie was that he had retired.
But in January came word of the prophetically titled The Next Day, an album that Bowie had worked on in secret with longtime producer Tony Visconti for two years. The title suggested a new chapter in the career of one of rock ’n’ roll’s most colorful participants. Yet the songs, all streamlined with a musical and lyrical directness, echoed bits and pieces from Bowie albums that date to the ’70s. And if you think the new record’s title suggests promise, be warned. This is a dark and often dour work. “Here I am, not quite died; my body left to rot in a hollow tree,” Bowie sings over an infectious, guitar-hued grind in the chorus of The Next Day’s title tune.
What the circumstances add up to is this: The Next Day is one of the first truly great major label albums of 2013 and Bowie’s strongest work since 1977’s Heroes (which The Next Day oddly mimics in its cover art).
Credit Visconti for much of the album’s lean, cohesive sound. The songs are all constructed on fabrics of guitar created by stylists Gerry Leonard, David Torn and veteran Bowie sidekick Earl Slick. Together they fortify the dark jangle of The Stars (Are Out Tonight), a true love song to the heavens, and the harsher staccato drills of How Does the Grass Grow, one of two potent anti-war rants (the more vitriolic but dance savvy I’d Rather Be High is the other).
Of course, the primary fascination, as always, rests with Bowie himself. When he plays starmaker on (You Will) Set the World on Fire, a tune that can’t help but be viewed with a hint of irony in the American Idol age of instant celebrity status, Bowie recalls his majestic mid-’70s heyday. Of course, the song’s powerful hooks help the cause. But on the album-closing Heat, he sails out into space, just as he did more than 40 years ago, questioning identity and purpose in a beautiful cosmic haze.
The Next Day is the album you didn’t expect from Bowie only because no one expected to hear from him again at all. Once its music takes hold, you will recognize fragments of a reconstituted pop voice. Its battle cry is powerful, vital and delightfully disturbing.