We’ve seen a lot of David Bowies over the years. He got his start as David Bowie the Joni Mitchell Superfan in 1967, but two years later he was David Bowie the Space Cadet. There’s David Bowie The Man Who Fell To Earth and David Bowie The Plastic Soul Crooner. There was David Bowie The Drum ‘N’ Bass Early Adopter and David Bowie The Hones-To Go-Top 40 Star and even David Bowie the Midlife Crisis Noise Rocker. Some of his guises defined styles, and many of his approaches to art and music will still be influential 100 years from now.
And then there are the others. Earthing is no lost masterpiece, but give him credit for showing up at the rave much earlier than Madonna or U2. (His 1995 industrial rock opera Outside, on the other hand, is crazy underrated.) Even when he missed the mark, it was always fun to try to guess where he would go next. But for the past decade, David Bowie has played his longest role yet: David Bowie The Recluse.
David Bowie had spent so much time constantly moving forward that it was hard to believe he could ever just stop. Even when the work was just passable, it was comforting to know that he was still out there pushing himself. He seemed determined to never let the passing of time dull his thirst for finding the next new thing. Which is inspiring. It’s probably also pretty draining on a person. After so many decades, could anyone really blame him if he had truly felt that he had said all he had to say?
Turns out we shouldn’t have worried. Because now David Bowie is back, and he wants to tell us where he’s been. And not just in the past ten years either.
Following the tour for 2003′s Reality and emergency heart surgery, Bowie has remained out of the spotlight but his influence never waned. Even when David Bowie was gone, David Bowie was everywhere. Young artists kept studying albums such as Low and Station To Station, desperate to figure out how he made it seem like blue eyed crooning, Brian Eno soundscapes and filthy Mick Ronson licks all tied together. It seemed like Bowie appreciated the effort; he resurfaced to sing with TV On The Radio and the Arcade Fire, and even though he didn’t physically attend Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball or LCD Soundsystem’s Madison Square Garden retirement party, his presence was felt. In fact, it’s tempting to say he never left. But 2003 was a decade ago, a lifetime in terms of musical trends. Doesn’t he owe us a freak folk album or something?
Eventually, the rumors about his health intensified. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, always known for his restraint and tact, even wrote a song called “Is David Bowie Dying?” But it turns out he was fine, just taking an overdue rest. At the start of 2013, Bowie shocked longtime fans by revealing that for the past few years he, longtime producer Tony Visconti and several of his regular sidemen had secretly gotten together to work on a batch of songs, and the results would be released as The Next Day, his twenty-fourth album. Bowie seems content to let the music do the talking here, as he won’t be doing any interviews or touring for it. So if you want to know where he’s been, this is the only place you’ll get any answers.
Because of the health scare and time out of the spotlight, there’s a temptation to draw a parallel to Bob Dylan‘s 1997 reinvention Time Out Of Mind, a work that saw another legendary songwriter who’d been having health issues contemplate his mortality and long career. And yeah, there’s plenty of that going on here too, if you want to look for it. The title track talks about the kids who “can’t get enough of that doomsday song” and “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is only slightly more uplifting than the title implies. (Luckily, no amount of time can diminish Bowie’s ability to sympathize with misunderstood weirdoes or make a chorus really soar when necessary.) Heck, the single is called “Where Are We Now,” but it’s more about where we’ve been. The lyrics reference empty trains, the fall of the Berlin Wall and walking the dead, but what’s important is just how weary and vulnerable Bowie sounds here. He’s seen the world almost fall apart too many times before, and it’s taken his toll. He sounds so anguished he can barely utter the titular question, so disappointed is he that he’s been on the planet for 66 years and it still hasn’t begun to make any more sense. But he ends the song hopeful that people will carry on anyway.
That spark of life is just as important as the spectre of death. Bowie has never been one to make things too easy, so you knew this wasn’t just going to be one long gorgeous moan about aging. The title track is a total Motown shimmy machine that swings so hard it seems downright cruel that we won’t be hearing it live If “Where Are We Now” reveals a man willing to sound every bit his 66 years, the nasty glam strut of “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” shows that he can also sound half his age just as easily. (Saint Ronson himself must have gifted that Queen Bitchin’ guitar riff to Bowie in a dream or something.) It wouldn’t sound out of place on Hunky Dory, and the second biggest surprise here is how easily Bowie can slip back in to his old clothes. “Dancing Out In Space” doesn’t belong on his next greatest hits compilation, but it absolutely would have made a fine b-side for “Modern Love,” while “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is an elegiac ballad that actually would sound just fine next to “Life On Mars?” on said compilation.
Maybe it shouldn’t be that big a surprise. Bowie can always get in to character when he needs to, and even his less successful gambits didn’t suffer from lack of commitment. It’s just odd that his latest guise is David Bowie: Huge Fan of David Bowie. Nearly every song harkens back to some aspect of his decade long career, and the best tracks come closer to hitting the mark than we had any right to expect. But for someone who has spent an entire career pushing himself, the biggest surprise is how comfortable Bowie sounds just being himself. Not that we know what Bowie sounds like, as he has always filtered his vision through his latest character or aesthetic obsession. But if you were to try to imagine what the “real” David Bowie sounds like, we might imagine that it sounds like The Next Day, which is to say a little a confident mix of everything he’s done, with a heavy emphasis on his ’70s work. There’s no attempt to strain himself to keep up with his followers. (I admit that I just assumed that if Bowie decided to come back, James Murphy would somehow be involved.) He’s firmly content to stay in his comfort zone here and that comfort zone encompasses nearly the entirety of pop music.
You do have to wonder what the young rebel rebel would make of Bowie settling in during his golden years. Would the man who spent the ’70s thumbing his nose at the idea of conventionality and good taste want to hear that he’s aged gracefully? Perhaps it would comfort him to know that while he’s dipped into his old bag of tricks sonically, his lyrical perspective does feel different from him. Parts of this album have him sounding as vulnerable and ragged as we’ve ever heard him, and his desire to find some semblance of peace of mind does feel like a bold admission, coming from one of the most restless souls around.
The Next Day is out March 12 on Columbia Records.