David Bowie's “The Next Day” (ISO/Columbia) is the work of a master.
While it doesn't hit stores until March 12, "The Next Day" is streaming in its entirety at iTunes now and is well-worth seeking out.
His first album in a decade – first since a life-threatening heart attack in 2004 and widespread speculation of his retirement after disappearing from public life – is a stunning, emotional thrill from start to finish, playing more like a collection of future hits than an album wrapped around a particular theme or sonic approach.
Leave it to the 66-year-old Bowie to understand the current musical landscape and use it to his advantage. Every song here could be released as a single, each worthy of a video, usable as an artistic jump-off point.
After all, before Lady Gaga, before Madonna, Bowie built the blueprint for the ultimate musical chameleon, conquering glam, punk, new wave, funk and everything in between.
For “The Next Day,” Bowie reinvents himself by reinventing, well, himself. The cover of “The Next Day,” which is actually the cover of his classic “Heroes” album with a sheet of paper over it, hints at his inspiration – looking at some of his career's most memorable periods through the lens of the artist and the person he has become.
Thanks to producer Tony Visconti and a band that includes longtime collaborators, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, guitarist Gerry Leonard and drummer Sterling Campbell, Bowie has music that can rival pretty much all of his previous work. The biggest difference on “The Next Day” is in his lyrics, which have rarely been this introspective or direct.
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Considering his health issues, Bowie is understandably interested in discussing death. With the haunting ballad “Where Are We Now,” Bowie musically revisits his Berlin period, but lyrically confronts the fear of death and the future with the determination to move forward “as long as there's me, as long as there's you.” On the title track, over snarling glam-rock guitars, he paints a picture of an ugly death (“Here I am, not quite dying,” he sings, “My body left to rot in a hollow tree”) that is more noble than giving in to those who “live upon their feet and die upon their knees.”
Bowie is also concerned with wars and its effects on those who fight them in the psychedelic “I'd Rather Be High” and the disguised rage of “How Does the Grass Grow,” while he takes a conceptual page from Pearl Jam's “Jeremy,” for the timely “Valentine's Day,” about a teenager who dreams of killing his classmates and teachers to gain control of his life.
Bowie returns to his interest in celebrity and “Fame” with the conflicted “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” which sonically sounds like a sequel to “China Girl,” and the strutting rocker “(You Will) Set the World on Fire.” He also manages some “Young Americans”-era fun on the wild, sax-fueled “Dirty Boys” and the dreamy “Dancing Out in Space” that swirls Motown simplicity into a complicated wall-of-guitars sound.
With “The Next Day,” Bowie shows that the years out of the spotlight haven't diminished him in any way. In fact, they have made him better.
Here's the great video for "The Stars," co-starring Tilda Swinton: