There are so many David Bowies. And although there’s little consensus on his absolute best, the choices include Arty Bowie, Dramatic Ballad Bowie, Rockin’ Bowie, Glam-Pop Bowie and The Bowie That Writes About Bowie. All of the above appear on The Next Day, his first collection of new material in 10 years. The timing couldn’t better: Primed by absence, public speculation on his physical and mental health and then the unexpected release of “Where Are We Now?” — his most personal and justly-acclaimed single in decades — on his 66th birthday, rabid fans and respectful admirers alike have built up a deafening buzz for his 24th album. Would it be another comparatively underwhelming disc akin to his ’90s and early ’00s output, or would it join the best of his ’70s and early ’80s trailblazers?
The answer lies somewhere in between. As confirmed by “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” the album’s second and far more extroverted single, Bowie hasn’t entirely abandoned his post-heyday habit of leaving his vocal melodies frustratingly underdeveloped. Sometimes when the groove is tight and he pours on the vocal razzle-dazzle, that matters little: The opening title track comes on like gangbusters and — befitting the album’s self-reflexive and iconoclastic artwork — recalls Heroes‘ kick-starter “Beauty and the Beast.”
Although many of the starman’s key albums present unified genres while evoking similarly specific time periods, The Next Day flits all over the place, often suggesting Bowie’s own back pages — a little futuristic Station to Station art-funk here (“Dancing Out in Space”), a little Tin Machine quasi-metal there ["(You Will) Set the World on Fire"]. The melodically substantial “Valentine’s Day” goes further back to the glammy days of Ziggy Stardust, right down to Bowie veteran Earl Slick’s stinging Mick Ronson-esque guitar cries. Kindred cut “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” climaxes the album with the desperation of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” adding a coda that suggests Ziggy‘s “Five Years.” The Next Day ultimately proves itself too musically self-referential to be groundbreaking, but it does capitalize better than the singer has in decades on his own assets: This is Bowie doing Bowie.