David Bowie, "The Next Day" (Columbia-ISO)
Many people wondered if there would be a next day for David Bowie, professionally speaking.
Bowie retreated after suffering a heart attack in 2004, leaving many of his fans to wonder if he had retired. He recorded secretly in New York the past couple of years, announced the imminent release of "The Next Day" on his 66th birthday in January, and has said nothing about its contents publicly.
Absence has clearly made the heart fonder, judging by the pre-release raves for his first new music in 10 years. Simmer down. This does not auger a return to Bowie's 1970s glory days, although "The Next Day" is certainly more focused than his string of forgettable work in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The album cover and song "Where Are We Now?" harken back to Bowie's fruitful period in Berlin. The moody, atmospheric song has Bowie, in a voice rendered fragile by age, wandering the German streets again. Like "Heroes," it ultimately soars and is life-affirming.
It also sounds like nothing else on the disc, not only in tempo but in the personal glimpse it offers. As a songwriter, Bowie is a reporter, and sings of medieval evil, the shamed offspring of a prison warden, a soldier wasted by his work, a gleaming young girl in a rotting world. And, unexpectedly, Bob Dylan, in the roaring rocker "(You Will) Set the World on Fire."
Producer Tony Visconti and Bowie steer the band toward a muscular rock sound. Bowie sounds refreshed, happy to be working at his own pace, and Visconti is one of his best collaborators. Most compelling are "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" -- what's the deal with all these parentheses (?) -- that addresses celebrity as both necessary and an evil and "Dancing Out in Space." The track is no space oddity: it's a thrill ride with a swinging beat and trippy guitar.
The balance is more solid than spectacular. While a welcome return for those who know him, "The Next Day" isn't likely to get more than a shrug from a new generation of fans.