David Bowie’s great contribution to rock hasn’t been his voice, which can be as thin as his own translucent visage. It’s in his ability to remove one mask only to reveal another — his ability to surprise. Same here.
Bowie, just when everyone was sure he had left the game for good, returns with a triumph of revision, apotheosizing his past even as he dissembles it. (Not for nothing, I don’t think, is the cover of this new album simply an obliterated version of an older one.) Hailed as a return to the dark portent of his Berlin years, when Bowie issued a trio of transfixedly disconnected, odd and dangerous projects, the forthcoming The Next Day is bigger than that, more complex, more fidgety. It feels by turns like a valedictory, like cutting social commentary, like a series of autobiographical sketches, like complete bullshit.
In other words, it’s Bowie at his absolute best.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Tony Levin joins us to talk about keeping this David Bowie project a secret, along with new collaborations from his Stick Men group, Peter Gabriel and the Crimson ProjeKct.]
Meanwhile, producer Tony Visconti (who’d worked with Bowie on 11 previous albums between 1969-2003, including the Berlin triptych) keeps busy morphing the music bed with a sorcerer’s glee — conjuring every phase of a career for Bowie that would stun a chameleon into reverent silence. He gives The Next Day an even broader, more episodic feel, with only Bowie’s unscrupulously inventive word play, and his still otherworldly hypnotic approach with the lyric, left to hold things together.
Together, they’ve produced Bowie’s most consistent album since their 1980 collaboration Scary Monsters, though don’t take that description to mean that this album ever works of a piece.
Instead, you have the title track, hurtling out like a hand across the face — it’s Bowie reasserting his Station to Station persona with a snarling force — but then the scronking Eno-era nihilism of “Dirty Boys,” which stutters and stumbles along with Bowie singing as if submerged.
If “I’d Rather Be High” and “Heat” mimic the wow-man folk of Space Oddity, well, it’s hard to remember a post-Ziggy moment where Bowie’s glam-rocked harder than on this project’s “Valentine’s Day” and “(You Will) Set the World on Fire.” “Boss of Me” bursts out like Alladin Sane for a new generation, while “Love Is Lost,” “Where Are We Now?” and “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” reanimate the brilliantly doomy fin de siecle feel of Lodger.
Tracks like “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “Dancing Out in Space” perhaps get the closest to the plasticine R&B of his Let’s Dance period — though Bowie’s vocal, still a touch too dry as always, feels much more present — more involved. “If You Can See Me” swerves boldly into the passing lane again, though, returning Bowie to the noisy experiments of 1990s efforts like Outside.
Put simply, The Next Day — due March 12, 2013, via Iso-Columbia Records — is all over the place. That, in its way, makes this album prototypical Bowie, too. His is a legend that abhors organization, much less categorization. The results, then, are just what you were hoping for: With The Next Day, Bowie has never sounded more like himself — whatever that is.