Dubbed ‘The Rock ‘N Roll Chameleon’, David Bowie has taken on many forms throughout his long and storied career. The man born David Jones (he changed his name as to not be confused with the Monkees heartthrob) made reinvention a mainstream of the rock star mystique long before Madonna or Lady Gaga hit the scene. Whether playing asexual space alien, technologically paranoid ambassador or new-wave 80s star, Bowie’s only consistent behavior left us wondering who would turn up next.
And he’s left us wondering for the last ten years. The shape-shifter took the role of recluse over the past decade or so. After releasing the poorly received Heathen and Reality in 2002 and 2003, respectively, the man all but disappeared into the densely dark streets of New York City. Concerts were canceled, music ceased to exist and even rumors of ill health began to circulate. When Bowie did appear from the shadows, he was spotted carrying grocery or shopping bags, looking more like your dad than an alien from the deepest corners of space.
Now, the man they once called The Thin White Duke has crawled out of the sewers to deliver his 26th album, The Next Day. We officially have every indication that Bowie is back in his never-ending attempt to blow our minds. The Next Dayfinds our man in the same quandaries that have followed him through his entire career: Who am I, what do I stand for, where have I been, what have I done and where am I going? Bowie expresses this feeling of aimless wandering in the only way he knows how, extreme experimentation. At times he sounds old, pessimistic and tired. The next moment he’s young, vibrant and optimistic. And it all happens in the wink of an eye.
Bowie is perhaps the only artist who can channel all of his sounds from the past 40 years without sounding like a greatest hits album. “I’d Rather Be High” brings us back to the very beginning of the folky Space Oddity days. Bowie hits those hard-to-reach high notes that have become his signature sound along with that baritone voice. His late-1970s experimental phase from the albums known as “The Berlin Trilogy” (Low, Heroes and Lodger) can be heard everywhere on the record. Songs such as “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” “Heat” and “Love is Lost” have that melancholy, futuristic sound stemming from that very period. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” bring us back to Bowie’s 80s resurrection a la Let’s Dance, when stars from the 70s successfully embraced the MTV generation. And of course Ziggy Stardust shows up in all his glamour, churning out numerous up-tempo rockers like the title track, “Valentine’s Day” and “Boss of Me.”
We of course can’t totally give him a free pass in the name of experimentation. Some tracks do miss their mark, even for Bowie. “How Does the Grass Grow” and “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” stray a bit too far. But we’ll let it slide. Very few artists can pull off this kind of organized inconsistency. Bowie has built a career on doing just that. As the title would suggest, this rock and roll alien has entered a new chapter in his life. Although it might appear to be an album solely based on reflection, Bowie is also reintroducing himself to the world. As he sings on the albums lead single “Where Are We Now?,” “As long as there’s fire/As long as there’s me/As long as there’s you.” It’s clear this record serves as Bowie’s declaration to his audience that he’s still here, in all his glorious forms. And after all these years, we still don’t know what he’ll do next.
3.5 out of 4 stars
The Next Day drops on Mar. 12 but is currently streaming for free on iTunes