Bowie seizes the day with return to form
Album of the Week: David Bowie The Next Day (RCA) ****
It has been two months to the day since David Bowie surprised everyone by emerging from a lengthy hibernation. Comeback single Where Are We Now? impressed in its elegiac, understated way, but long-time producer Tony Visconti was right: it's not at all representative of this – Bowie's 30th album, and first since 2003's Reality.
Here is an album that hop-scotches from genre to genre with gleeful abandon. Just when you think you have the measure of it, it takes an unexpected and thrilling about-turn. What its lead single has done, however, is to signpost the undeniable quality of Bowie's new material.
That nobody outside his inner sanctum knew about this album's existence at the start of the year, makes it all the sweeter.
From the driving hard rock of (You Will) Set the World Alight to the arresting saxophone that punctuates Dirty Boys, Bowie sounds utterly revitalised.
And songs like the jazzy, discordant If You Can See Me underpin a desire to trace new ground.
But this is also an album about looking back, both sonically and lyrically. His creative high water mark in Berlin in the late 1970s provides considerable inspiration throughout (the cover artwork references his iconic "Heroes" album, which was recorded in the shadow of the Berlin Wall), but there are also echoes of his visionary glam rock experiments, his dalliances with avant-garde rock and the sort of searching ballads he mastered early on in his career.
The rambunctious opener – the title track – recalls the totalitarian theatrics of his mid-1970s Diamond Dogs album and, as with so many of the entries in the David Bowie songbook, it boasts intriguing lines.
He may not have released any new material in 10 years, but his sense of wonder and innate intelligence shine through in his song as powerfully as they always have.
There are touches of humour too – not least in the fantastic, Brad Pitt-referencing The Stars (Are Out Tonight) with its sage words on modern day celebrity. It's also a great tune – and there are several of these here, including Valentine's Day, whose sweet refrain is at odds with its dark subject matter: oppression.
The Next Day may not quite scale the heights of his best work in the 1970s – a decade he owned – but it's a very special release none the less. Praise must go to his collaborators: bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, Dublin guitarist Gerry Leonard and, of course, Tony Visconti.
Welcome back, Major Tom.
KEY TRACKS If You Can See Me; Dirty Boys; The Stars (Are Out Tonight)