I'm not a fan of David Bowie, in the sense that I've been aware of his existence since I was about 10 years old - since before he released what many people thought was going to be his final studio album, Reality, in 2003, but until now, I've only really been aware of 'the hits'. 'Life on Mars', 'Let's Dance', 'Heroes', et cetera - I've liked what I've heard, but I must confess I've always been rather daunted by his back catalogue. 23 albums in 36 years isn't something to be sniffed at, after all; even then, I wondered if I'd ever be around to experience a Bowie album cycle. In 2011, The Flaming Lips teamed up with Neon Indian to release a song called 'Is David Bowie Dying?', and I started to wonder myself after a while. Ironically. around that time, Bowie was very much alive, and working under strict secrecy on what would become album number 24. Then, on January 8th of this year - the singer's 66th birthday - he became The Man Who Stunned the World. An album was announced, a single was released ('Where Are We Now?'), and all hell broke loose.
In the early days, as the dust settled, there was as much discussion of the album sleeve for The Next Day (essentially a doctored version of the cover for his 1977 album Heroes) as there was the single itself: a sumptuous, mid-tempo song which proved that Bowie was still in fine voice and well able to deliver the goods. With no albums released in 10 years, and no live performances in 7, it was always going to be hard to predict what an album would sound like (if he ever made another one); The Next Day benefits from being everywhere at once, however, with straightforward yet stirring songs like 'Valentine's Day' rubbing shoulders with 'If You Can See Me', which manages to take in a 90s rave drumbeat, jungle percussion and a monstrous guitar lick, being swept along with a sense of reckless abandon; in all honesty, it shouldn't work, but it does. Should we be surprised? Bowie's made a career out of such things, after all.
The Next Day works well as an album, but its songs can be enjoyed just as much when taken out of context, as the rollicking, strings-drenched current single 'The Stars (Are Out Tonight)' proves, sounding both pleasingly old-fashioned and of-the-now. There's as much room for hook-laden songs like the two singles, as there is inventiveness, and the best part is that the two sides of the album don't provide a jarring contrast. For instance, 'The Stars...' benefits hugely from being sandwiched in between the saxophone-assisted 'Dirty Boys' and massive-sounding 'Love is Lost' (an early album highlight that grows in stature on subsequent listens); these are 3 songs which all sound vastly different from each other, but they make perfect sense when taken all together; and so it goes for the rest of the album. Even as 'I'd Rather Be High' marks a shift into more direct territory (relatively speaking, as The Next Day is essentially a pop album), Bowie still experiments, never content to rest on his laurels.
He has a reputation for that, so even if it is a case of 'different but the same', it's difficult to care when he can so easily maintain momentum over 14 tracks and drop the three best songs on the album at the point when one would expect things to start winding down. '(You Will) Set the World on Fire' is incendiary (pun very much intended); 'Dancing Out in Space' is completely irresistible; and the waltzing penultimate track, 'You Feel So Lonely You Could Die' sounds oddly triumphant, despite its heartbreaking lyrics. As things draw to a close with 'Heat', an understated closer, there's time to reflect on everything that's come before it. I'm not in the best position to comment, but I'll say it anyway - there's a feel to this album that sounds like it could only be created by one man, and that's David Bowie. "Here I am, not quite dying," he proclaims on the title track. He's very much alive, in every sense of the word. Maybe we won't have to wait 10 years for album number 25.