David Bowie has never been known to stand still. He has taken a diverse set of genres—soul, rock, folk, electronic—and put his own spin on them, whether with the glam rock of Ziggy Stardust, the plastic soul of Young Americans, or the proto-electronica of Low. Yet in the decade since his last LP, Reality, there has been a Bowie-sized hole in music. Other than a guest vocal appearance on TV on the Radio’s gorgeous track “Province,” Bowie had disappeared into quasi-retirement with no intention of returning.
That is, until now. The Next Day, Bowie’s newest album, was announced suddenly in early January after being recorded in total secrecy. It would have been easy to throw this album into the piles and piles of half-assed comeback efforts by legendary artists. But The Next Day is a triumph, one of Bowie’s best albums, and the strongest work Bowie has put forth in at least three decades. Yet its strengths lie not only in Bowie’s ability to move forward but, after a nearly 50-year career in music, to look back.
It’s difficult to pin down just what The Next Day sounds like. This isn’t to say that it is a necessarily difficult or challenging album—rather, Bowie has created an expedition through the entirety of his genre-bending catalog. Tracks like “Dirty Boys” and “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” recall the jagged glam rock of Aladdin Sane or Diamond Dogs, and the gorgeous “Heat” could have easily been recorded during his time with Brian Eno. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Bowie has reunited with producer Tony Visconti, who has worked with Bowie sporadically throughout his career, including on legendary albums like Low, Heroes, and Young Americans.
But The Next Day isn’t simply an attempt to recapture the magic of Bowie’s earlier career; it still has legs as a truly individualized David Bowie experience. The Next Day is a masterfully crafted album. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” a creepy tale of sinister celebrity, is an exhilarating track that features flaring guitars accompanying Bowie’s surprisingly strong voice. “Dirty Boys” utilizes a low, strained saxophone that sets a deliberate pace. “Dancing Out In Space” is an incredibly woozy, cosmic track that uses multiple vocal effects and jangling guitars. And “Where Are We Now?” is a beautiful, haunting ballad that reveals Bowie at his most vulnerable, his voice strained yet crystalline, while reflecting on his time in Berlin and his fear of the unknown.
The Next Day is anything but a lame attempt at a comeback. This is Bowie at his most focused, his most sincere, and his most powerful in years.
With an incredibly diverse track list, it would be easy to compare some of The Next Day’s work to other artists across modern musical history. But Bowie has left such an indelible mark on popular music that it would be unfair to do so. Bands ranging from The Smiths to Blur to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs owe Bowie an immense debt from a musical and cultural standpoint. The Next Day, then, is another reminder of not only how important Bowie remains as a musical figure, but also how consistent and powerful he is as an artist and songwriter.
As an album, The Next Day feels like the period at the end of Bowie’s career “sentence,” a perfect summary and reflection of Bowie’s contributions to music. Yet it also leaves the listener clamoring for more of Bowie’s brand of genius, so fleeting in modern music. Thankfully, it appears as if this is the first of several new albums from the Thin White Duke. With The Next Day, it’s clear that Bowie’s next chapter, no matter the direction, will be an exciting musical journey. This chameleon’s colors are as bright as ever.