David Bowie in a video for the song "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" from his new disc, "The Next Day."
Updated: March 7, 2013 5:58PM
David Bowie, “The Next Day” (ISO) ½
Throughout the ’90s, David Bowie ran from his past. He swore off his catalog in concert, couched himself in a middling rock band (Tin Machine) and embraced emerging electronica music — even touring with Nine Inch Nails, looking frightfully the follower rather than the usual leader.
The results ranged from OK (“Earthling,” 1997) to oh-dear (“Hours…,” 1999). Then, recognizing that he had built for himself a wheelhouse containing many mansions, he did the smart thing at the turn of this century and went back inside. “Heathen” (2002) and “Reality” (2003) are two of Bowie’s most accessible and enjoyable records, not only because of their renewed songwriting focus and alluring tunes but because he made them with Tony Visconti, the trusted producer-pal who helmed most of Bowie’s landmark albums in the 1970s. Together they drew inspiration from Bowie’s past without retreading it. “Heathen” rang a lot of familiar Bowie bells, and “Reality” started to fashion something like a new sound — a sound that “The Next Day” capitalizes, underlines and emboldens.
“The Next Day” is titled for the future, yet its face is a defacement of the past, papering the new title over the cover of Bowie’s landmark “Heroes” (1977). The first “New” single is the maudlin “Where Are We Now?,” a sighing reminiscence of Bowie’s days in Berlin (recording some of those early albums with Visconti). That song materialized in January on Bowie’s 66th birthday. Not a peppy comeback, by any means, it was embraced overenthusiastically by fans just glad to know he was not only alive but writing.
Bowie’s last tour, in 2004, was interrupted by an emergency angioplasty to clear a blocked artery. Dire rumors of his health have circulated since, and the Flaming Lips recorded a song called “Is David Bowie Dying?”
The title track here, though, finds Bowie sneering, “‘I’m gonna say goodbye,’ he says/Yeah,” as in, yeah, right.
This new day, however, is a cloudy one. “The Next Day” is not an easy album to digest. Lyrics span a variety of Bowie fixations — dystopian futures, gangs of cross-dressing boys and, of course, fame cursed fame. While this is definitely a rock record, the music careens through several styles and affectations, from “Reality” rewrites (“The Stars [Are Out Tonight]”) and good ol’ glam-rock (“Valentine’s Day”) to the jazzy chase-scene arrangement of “If You Can See Me” and the wonderfully lurching, Morphine-like rhythm and sax of “Dirty Boys.”
Instead of playing nearly everything themselves, as they did on the intimate “Heathen” and “Reality” records, Bowie and Visconti brought a band back to the studio — a legion of Bowie pals (including guitarist Earl Slick, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, “Serious Moonlight”-era sax player Steve Elson) — the more the merrier to muddle the memories. The album thus plays like a band working on new tunes but relying on muscle memory, not resting on laurels but on the assurance of one of rock’s richest catalogs.
Bowie obsessives will find plenty here for forensic analysis, musically and lyrically, but ultimately “The Next Day” stands on its own, or at least as the culmination of what “Heathen” and “Reality” were trying out. Finally comfortable with his own legacy, Bowie has made a record that feels like classic Bowie. Of course, we tend to say that about every new Bowie album. But “The Next Day” likely is the first album in at least 20 years that finally deserves this oft-repeated claim: “It’s the best Bowie since ‘Scary Monsters’!”
Note: “The Next Day” is streaming for free on iTunes through March 12.