I once ran into David Bowie on the street in New York City about 10 years ago. He was walking down the Bowery with a hood pulled over his head, avoiding eye contact and moving swiftly, the way famous people do. That same year, I ran into Lou Reed in midtown, Brian Eno at JFK Airport, and Philip Glass on the F train, but none of those moments were as jarring as passing by David Bowie on the Bowery. It felt strange to see him bounding down the street like a normal person. Perhaps the man who fell to Earth was human.
Bowie retains a potent mystique, the whiff of übercelebrity. He possesses a certain coolness—in both the cultural sense and the emotional one. Bowie seems less “real” than other classic rock stalwarts, like the Rolling Stones; his slight otherworldliness keeps him intriguing. “My statement is very pointed—except it’s very ambiguous,” Bowie said to NME in 1975. That pointed ambiguity lingers four decades later; at some level, we still don’t know who David Bowie is. The cool distance he injects between himself and his audience is part of his enduring seduction.
Bowie is a master at the art of the mix, picking up fragments from culture—literature, art, film, music, fashion—and melting them down into something that sounds like no one else but him. At several points in his long, storied career, Bowie defined the zeitgeist, and his constant shape-shifting worked in his favor. “I never thought of myself as a futurist,” he said to Melody Maker in 1978. “I always thought I was a very contemporary sort of figure, very Nowish. Rock is always ten years behind the rest of art; it picks up bits and pieces.”
At his best, Bowie didn’t chase after trends; he helped to create them. In 1977, Bowie was in Berlin with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti brewing strange synthesizer epics and experimental rock songs, not in London where punk was exploding. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bowie jumped on trends with mixed results, in albums like 1997’s drum and bass-influenced Earthling.
The Next Day, Bowie’s first album in 10 years, appears Tuesday, seemingly out of nowhere. Instead of releasing a dubstep album to keep up with the kids, Bowie hews close to his classic work in the 1970s without sounding like a retread of the past. The Next Day is the best album Bowie has made since the curiously underrated Outside, produced with Eno and released in 1995.
Produced by Visconti, whose fruitful partnership with Bowie extends back to Space Oddity in 1969, The Next Day is, by all measures, a huge success. On the pop charts, Bowie is reaching heights he hasn’t hit since the ‘80s; in the press, the album is garnering nearly universal critical acclaim. “David Bowie’s The Next Day may be the best comeback album ever,” declared Andy Gill in the Independent. In Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield enthused that Bowie’s latest single “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” was “like Bowie decided to fuse ‘Heroes’ and ‘Space Oddity’ into the same song, a feat he's never attempted before.” The Telegraph pronounced the album “an absolute wonder.”
The Next Day is indeed a great album. But the hosannas are a bit surprising, given the limp reaction to Bowie’s previous two rock albums, Heathen and Reality, which were also produced by Visconti. The albums had strong moments but went largely unnoticed. Part of the problem with Reality—an album that was, in part, a meditation on the world after 9/11—was that we didn’t want Bowie’s reality. We wanted artifice, camp, fantastical stories, and soaring anthems. Earnestness and candor are boring; we craved a grander illusion, one that Bowie is so expert at architecting.
The Next Day is a propulsive rock album with stronger songs and more drama. Many of the songs on The Next Day are not autobiographical but are tales culled from Bowie’s readings of medieval English history. These age-old stories are often harrowing, visceral: In the album’s title track, Bowie howls “They chase him through the alleys chase him down the steps/ they haul him through the mud and they chant for his death/ drag him to the feet of the purple-headed priest.” Narrating dark tales based loosely on history, or on great works of fiction, is an old Bowie technique: 1973’s Aladdin Sane was full of vignettes, most memorably “Panic in Detroit,” which took its cue from Iggy Pop’s tales of the White Panther party, and 1974’s Diamond Dogs drew inspiration from George Orwell’s 1984.