Yes, it’s a huge comeback. But for whom?
David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day is being praised for enacting one of the most dramatic returns to form in music history. It’s his first major work of fresh music in ten years—as all the many, many articles about it have reminded us. But it isn't Bowie himself who has made the dramatic return; it's the pop-music audience and my colleagues in the critical establishment. We've come back to Bowie after a long period of neglect and indifference that began some time before 2003, when he last released a full album of new material, Reality.
The Next Day is fine and serious, a collection of artful rock songs by a mature and ambitious musician in full command of his skills. Then again, so was Reality; and the album Bowie made a year before that one, Heathen, was better still. In fact, Heathen—a tight, lean guitar-heavy album produced by Tony Visconti—is aesthetically of a piece with The Next Day and is, song for song, at least as good if not superior to the new album. The big difference between The Next Day and both Heathen and Reality is something extra-musical, a matter of the aura surrounding the later work: the miracle narrative of creative rebirth.
As Bowie suggests with the very title of The Next Day, a phrase that defines the present by its relationship to the past, he has picked up where he left off ten years ago, when he fell ill with heart trouble and decided to slow down for a while. The new album has the spare integrity of a band session, and the snapping dog-fight guitar work of Gerry Leonard and David Torn (both of whom played on both Heathen and Reality) dominate most of the tracks. Almost half the songs are excellent, and I think of that as a high quotient. Musically, the melodies are simple, sometimes just staccato phrases with nice turns here and there; and the lyrics are gray in meaning and, mostly, black in tone: In "Valentine's Day," Bowie tells a cryptic half-story about a kid on a shooting rampage; "I'd Rather Be High" is written in the voice of a soldier in trench battle; and "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" deals cynically with one of Bowie's favorite subjects, the allure of celebrity. Throughout the album, which was recorded in multiple sessions over about two years' time, Bowie is in superb voice—or, more accurately, voices. He doles out, from song to song, each of his vintage vocal incarnations, from the high-theater tenor of Ziggy Stardust (on "Valentine's Day") to the grim baritone brooding of Low ("Heat," a moody, synth-based piece, a bleak highpoint of the album).
In popular music, comebacks are sometimes acts of recovery on the part of the artist; sometimes, rediscovery on the part of the audience; and often, a combination of the two: Judy Garland, cleaned up from drugs (temporarily) and repositioned as a concert artist, at Carnegie Hall in 1961; Elvis, toned and leathered, suddenly irreconcilable with his corny B-movie persona, on his "Comeback Special" in 1968. David Bowie, the past master of kitsch rock, half-Judy/half-Elvis, has now managed a comeback that is both recovery and rediscovery: the triumphalist climax of his struggle with health problems and age and the rediscovery of talents that were underappreciated even before he paused production ten years ago. The Next Day, the perfectly titled and perfectly fine work at center of all this, does its part by being almost as good as Bowie's previous two albums.