David Bowie is 66, and his last album of original material appeared 10 years ago. Since then, he suffered a heart attack and kept such a low profile that fans despaired that he had effectively retired from music.
But with the timing of an artist who built his career on subverting expectation, Bowie announced a new album, “The Next Day” (Columbia), on his birthday in January. Even more improbably, the album actually lives up to expectations raised by his lengthy absence. It’s his most consistent and rewarding work since “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” in 1980.
Not that Bowie has been in free fall since then. After reuniting with producer Tony Visconti, who worked closely with the singer on some of his most resonant ‘70s albums, Bowie released “Heathen” (2002) and “Reality” (2003) back-to-back. Both albums echoed Bowie’s past but also recontextualized it. He addressed his own mortality and post-9/11 chaos, while making a fresh pastiche of his best moves.
Bowie, with Visconti once again at his side, is even better on “The Next Day,” in part because the incubation period was longer. Secret sessions in his adopted hometown of New York City with a core group of trusted accomplices – guitarists Earl Slick and David Torn, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, drummer Sterling Campbell, saxophonist Steve Elson – yielded nearly 30 songs, pared to 14 for the new album.
The first single, “Where are We Now?,” signaled a more introspective approach, Bowie drifting back to his famed Berlin era over a handful of piano chords and watery guitar and sounding darn near elegaic. But Bowie references the past to make sense of where he stands today. Mortality may be bearing down on him, but he doesn’t respond with self-pity or sentimentality – because that would be boring, predictable and so un-Bowie like. Instead, there’s a no-time-to-lose urgency radiating from much of this music. At his best, Bowie has always had a knack for zeroing in on the sweet spot between songcraft and strangeness, melody and mayhem. Few tracks on “The Next Day” settle comfortably into one camp or the other, and the instability gives the album tension and durability.
The title track recasts the nasty Velvet Underground guitar riff at the heart of “Some Kind of Love” for a tale about a criminal running for his life. “Dirty Boys” lurches like a distant cousin of Bowie’s classic “Ashes to Ashes,” with eerie guitar washes that sound as if the Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison infiltrated the session (now there’s an idea).
“The Stars (are Out Tonight)” turns what sounds like a love song into a voyeuristic limo ride through celebrity culture, “behind tinted windows, gleaming like blackened sunshine.” The opening one-two-three-four punch concludes with the doomy “Love is Lost,” with Bowie at his evocative best: “Your house and even your eyes are new/Your maid is new, your accent too/But your fear is as old as the world.” Keyboards jab, drums punch, guitars surge and recede in noisy squalls, and a funereal organ cloaks everything in menace.
Among the most initially inviting songs is “Valentine’s Day,” with its insinuating guitar riff and ascending chorus. But listen more closely, and it describes the “tiny face” of a teen mass murderer on the verge of a rampage. A sinuous, psychedelic guitar riff snakes around the tale of another teen in dire circumstances, this time the desert soldier in “I’d Rather be High.”
The album closes by skipping from the terse riff-rock of “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” to the dank, disturbing “Heat,” which turns on the line, “My father and the prison.” Over queasy strings, the narrator responds: “I am a seer, I am a liar.” In an album full of tormented characters, it’s as apt a career summary as we’re likely to get from David Bowie, still cagey after all these years.