Backed by the kind of debauched glam-rock chug that powered 1973's Aladdin Sane, David Bowie declares, "Here I am, not quite dying," with acidic sarcasm on the title track of his new album, The Next Day. Mere months ago, most people's perception of Bowie was of a ghostly, waiflike figure, perhaps in terminal decline, occasionally glimpsed haunting New York following his withdrawal from public life in the wake of a heart attack in 2004. The re-emergence of the Thin White Duke, then, is shocking not just because of the time he's spent out of the limelight, but in the manner of his return. The Next Day isn't the somber, reflective album we might have expected in the light of its elegiac single, "Where Are We Now?" Instead, it's an album of force, vigor, and swagger that recognizes the march of time before proceeding to raise two crooked fingers to it.
Spotting the references to Bowie's vast back catalogue scattered throughout The Next Day is a delicious game. Following the "Watch That Man"-style rollick of the title track is "Dirty Boys," a wonderfully boneheaded homage to the dum-dum funk of Iggy Pop's The Idiot (produced by Bowie in 1976 between lines of cocaine). "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," meanwhile, glides sleekly on a cloud of strummed guitars and handclaps, whispering a cautionary tale about the dangers of celebrity, as a measured rejoinder to the glittering excess of "Fame." But it's not just the fashionable sections of his past that Bowie acknowledges: "Love Is Lost" is the kind of melodramatic, MOR jaunt that made up much of his better output this century on albums like Heathen. It's forgettable, yes, but its inclusion serves to demonstrate that The Next Day runs the rule honestly over the full menagerie of Bowie's poses and personas, and not just his '70s apogee. In a similar vein, when struggling through the macho twaddle of "Boss of Me," it's tempting to believe you're laughing with him rather than at him as he earnestly croons platitudes about "a small-town girl like you," because this is the kind of nonsense he peddled for real on Tin Machine. Diversions like that are responsible for the lengthy tracklist, and probably reduce the overall quality of the album, but it's fascinating to see an artist so capable of inhabiting his own creative process from such disparate periods in his career.
"Where Are We Now?" stands alone in sounding like nothing else Bowie has ever written; not even "Wild Is the Wind" felt so achingly melancholic. In the manic excitement of the morning of the song's release some two months ago, the very fact of its existence was enough for many people (Bowie lives!), but in the days since, the wistful ghost of a song has revealed itself as a powerful addition to the Dame's repertoire. The shimmering guitars and spectral vocal turn serve as an arresting counterpoint to the cocksure bluster of the album's opening tracks; the references to the Dschungel and KaDeWe are as tantalisingly specific yet beguilingly elliptical as ever.
Elsewhere, the sonically lovely but lyrically chilling "Valentine's Day" channels the spirit of "All the Young Dudes" in a perky pop number about a school shooting. Here, the strength of the band Bowie has assembled is immediately obvious: The rhythm section has a cocky glam strut to it, while the guitar recalls Mick Ronson in his pomp. Better still is "Dancing Out in Space," which skips along prettily, riding a wave of "Lust for Life"-style drums and a Robert Fripp pastiche of a riff headfirst into a joyous cacophony of cosmic mumbo jumbo and sci-fi sound effects. "If You Can See Me" revisits Bowie's ill-advised mid-'90s diversion into drum n' bass with enthusiasm, if not great success—further evidence of a fearless, unembarrassed sensibility regarding his legacy that's to be applauded.
Glib as it seems to imply that the man who wrote "Life on Mars" has anything still to prove, The Next Day does a ferocious job of silencing those who believed Bowie to have been a spent force, not just over the course of his lengthy hiatus, but because of the artistic morass of his past few decades of work. A little overlong, with too many excursions into areas of dubious taste in the name of variety, this is an album that nonetheless appears to be the product of a man with an omnivorous and voracious appetite for the creation of music. Vital, confident, and defiantly alive, Bowie has, with an imperfect but exhilarating album, announced his return to rock's top table. Anything from this point on is a bonus.