“Here I am / not quite dying,” David Bowie sings on the opening, title track of his new album The Next Day, which you can stream now on iTunes. This is one of the main themes of the album: Bowie has a long past behind him—ten years have elapsed since his last album, Reality—but, defiantly, he’s still here. In retrospect, it makes sense that Bowie announced his surprise comeback, with “Where Are We Now?,” on his 66th birthday. He’s not hiding his age; he’s riffing on it.
And he’s riffing on his past. Reunited with longtime producer Tony Visconti, he’s revisiting themes from throughout their careers together: Not just death, but celebrity (think Ziggy Stardust) and—on tracks like “Dancing Out in Space” and “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”— stars and space. On “Where Are We Now” he namedrops old haunts from the Dschungel nightclub to the streets outside the KaDeWe department store, not far from where he and Visconti produced their Berlin Trilogy. Listen to the hammering chords of the opening of “How Does the Grass Grow?”—complete with distorted guitar soaring over the top—and you could almost confuse it with the opening of “Heroes.”
Not that Bowie sounds old. In fact, the album sounds quite robust, packed with heavy distorted guitars, gospel choirs, baritone saxophones, and a few surprises: The restless “If You Can See Me” comes at you with an assault of polyrythms, and the ‘60s-psychedelia-influenced “I’d Rather Be High” with an Eastern melody on the cello, reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Within You Without You.” On “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” he harkens back to the opening track: “Here they are / they’re dying for you / but I hope they live forever.”