David Bowie’s been looking back at himself in his music for at least 16 years, but this is the first time he’s doing it as an artist who’s actually, legitimately, honest-to-god old. At a dashing-looking 66, he’s hardly ready for the record books as World’s Most Decrepit Rocker, but in the past you’d get the impression that to Bowie, being “old” simply meant wrestling with the reality of no longer being the sexual provocateur he was in the early ’70s, the art-rock innovator he was in the late ’70s, or the world-bestriding megastar he became in the early ’80s with Let’s Dance. Now, on his new album, The Next Day, it sounds like “old” means “Jesus, I could have died on an operating table.”
Bowie fell to Earth in 2004, when emergency surgery for a blocked coronary artery forced the cancellation of his tour in support of Reality, the album he released the year prior. But he’s been a professional old person since Jan. 9, 1997, the day he turned 50. He celebrated with a birthday party cum tribute concert at Madison Square Garden, in which the cream of the alt-rock crop — Billy Corgan, the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Frank Black, Robert Smith, Lou Reed, the actually quite good, goddammit, neo-glam outfit Placebo — covered his songs alongside him and his band in what constituted an official passing of the torch to all the young dudes.
Granted, less than a month later Bowie would pull off his last great chameleon act with Earthling, which fused his sideman Reeves Gabrels’ massive industrial guitar sound to the on-trend rhythms of drum and bass. But even that final slice of the cutting edge featured a song about watching Neil Young and Crazy Horse perform and realizing how old they’d all gotten. The self-descriptive title? “Dead Man Walking.” By his next album, 1999’s ruminative (and oddly punctuated) ‘Hours…’, Bowie could be spotted on the cover, long-haired and pensive, cradling the corpse of his raucous and spiky-haired Earthling persona in his arms, Pieta-style. Can’t get much more direct than that. With ‘Hours…’, Bowie began playing himself, more or less.
That mode continued through his two thoughtfully composed and arranged ’00s albums, 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality. True, the suit and tie he sported in photographs and illustrations for the two records respectively harkened back to his coked-up aristocrat Thin White Duke persona from the Station to Station era in ‘76. Meanwhile, Heathen lifted its rockers-up-front, spacey-shit-in-the-back track order from Bowie’s arty, Brian Eno–collaborating masterpieces, the “Berlin records” Low and “Heroes,” both of which were released in the same amazing year, 1977. Heathen and Reality also marked the return to the fold of the guy who produced those ‘77 masterpieces, Tony Visconti.
But these gestures in the direction of his most influential and acclaimed albums were just that: They provided critical cover, proof that this is serious-business Bowie, a Bowie comfortable enough in his own skin to play with his own imagery rather than borrow some from, say, Trent Reznor. Also, by this point Bowie had taken up permanent residence in New York; this gave both Heathen (written prior to the event and released after) and Reality (written and released afterward and opening with the line “See the great white scar over Battery Park”) the status of 9/11 records, further cementing their reputation as chronicles of the actual life of an actual man in his actual fifties.
Then came the 10-year gap. It’s not as though Bowie vanished completely during that time, but much of what he did do was cosign hip young bands (Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, er, Scarlett Johansson) in a fashion that only enhanced his éminence grise vibe, since without albums of his own to promote, the mutual admiration really only flowed one way. Mostly he seemed to be enjoying life with his wife, Iman, and their kid in New York. In fact, we all believed he’d stopped making music of his own precisely because, after his heart scare, he’d gotten too old for this shit.
And that right there is the key, I think. Looked at objectively, The Next Day really doesn’t mark a huge break from, well, pretty much everything Bowie’s done since Bill Clinton’s second term. If the music sounds familiar, it ought to: It’s being made by the same people who’ve made loads of Bowie songs during that period. Producer Tony Visconti, bassists Gail Ann Dorsey and Tony Levin, saxophonist Steve Elson, drummers Zachary Alford and Sterling Campbell, and guitarists Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick, and David Torn are all seasoned Bowie hands. Collectively, they’ve provided him with the most stable lineup of musical collaborators he’s had in any decade-long stretch of his entire career; the personnel listings on Heathen, Reality, and now The Next Day are virtually identical. (Alford’s a bit more of a throwback, dating to the Earthling days; that album’s monstrous beats may explain why the drums are higher in the mix here than they’ve been on any of the records in between. Visconti and Slick, meanwhile, have been working with Bowie on and off since the ’70s.)
But this doesn’t account for the change in the perspective of both Bowie and his audience. Every year that passed since 2003 without a new Bowie album increased our certainty that his last one really was his last one. Meanwhile, the ongoing critical rehabilitation set in motion by Bowie’s return to alternative rock in the mid-’90s peaked, erasing the taint of his lousy post-Let’s Dance ’80s efforts completely: The tastemaking music site Pitchfork named Low the best album of the ’70s, while a solid percentage of beloved indie-dance band LCD Soundsystem’s triumphal final album, This Is Happening, sounded like a Bowie cover band. And of course, Bowie had seen a health crisis severe enough to cut short a tour, cut open his chest, and potentially cut off his career, if not his life. It’s this sense of urgency, both with him and with us, that resonates on The Next Day.
That urgency infects the music itself. Bowie sings much of the album (too much, arguably) at the top of his register, in the heavily accented yelp that’s become his signature vocal sound. Alford’s drums pound as hard as anything in Bowie’s catalog. The guitar throughout is treated like a percussion instrument; on songs like “Love Is Lost” and “(You Will) Set the World on Fire,” it sounds pounded rather than played (though it is more effective on the former than the latter, which sounds a little too much like Bowie’s late-’80s bar-band misfire Tin Machine). There’s low, skronking saxophone layered into songs such as “Dirty Boys” and “Boss of Me,” a deliberately uglifying choice.
Lyrically, the main-through line is a sense of disbelief and uncertainty. On the knockout title track, which starts the album, Bowie growls about life as a matter of mere, improbably survival: “Here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot in a hollow tree.” Between verses that speak of a howling mob crying for blood, he describes the passage of time with a howl of outrage: “And the next day! And the next! And another day!” “Love Is Lost” ends with cries of “What have you done?” “Where Are We Now?“‘s big question is baked right into the title, and even though the song ends on an up note, with lines like “as long as there’s sun,” “as long as there’s rain,” “as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you” hinting at something that lasts, the actual thought remains unfinished. As long as there are those things…what? Bowie never says. Though given the answer provided to the title question of “How Does the Grass Grow?” — “Blood! Blood! Blood!” — maybe we’re better off that way. If the songs Bowie sings as other characters on this one (a reluctant soldier in “I’d Rather Be High,” a leering music-biz bigwig in “(You Will) Set the World on Fire”) uncharacteristically disappoint compared with past masterpieces in this vein like “Cracked Actor” or “Ziggy Stardust,” it’s because at this point the most compelling and upsetting character he can play is himself.
Even the nature of his Berlin-era throwbacks have changed. With the exception of the lead-off title track, which sounds a lot like the jittery and self-accusatory Low highlight “Breaking Glass,” nothing here really sounds like Bowie’s music from that period. The song explicitly written about that period, “Where Are We Now?” cites various Berlin landmarks, describing this stroll down memory lane as a matter of “walking the dead.” The most overt sonic references to Bowie’s German sojourn aren’t to Bowie’s stuff at all, but to the even seedier albums he and Visconti recorded with Iggy Pop at the same time, The Idiot and Lust for Life. (That’s right, Bowie was behind four stone classics in 1977 alone.) The stop-start rhythm of “Dirty Boys” is like a three-for-one homage to the Idiot tracks “Sister Midnight,” “Nightclubbing,” and “Dum Dum Boys” all at once. The chorus for “Dancing Out in Space,” a standout from The Next Day’s back half, takes the verse’s gentle swing and converts it into a nervous approximation of the barrel-and-bounce of Iggy’s “Lust for Life” and “Some Weird Sin.” And while the 6/8 time signature, morbid lyrics, and full-fledged “Five Years” drum outro on “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” all suggest Ziggy Stardust closer “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” the manic instrumentation actually sounds more like Iggy’s sad-sack undersexed lament “Tiny Girls.” Iggy was always the raw id to Bowie’s hyperanalytic superego, the outsider that this consummate insider brought along for the ride; age, it appears, is bringing that energy closer to the surface.
Given all the referential games Bowie’s capable of playing, the clarity of “Heat,” the album’s stunning closer, comes as a complete shock. Here’s a 66-year-old man who’s been famous for more than two-thirds of his life repeatedly singing, “And I tell myself I don’t know who I am.” Here’s a guy who made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a career spotting trends, blazing trails, and playing characters, repeatedly singing, “I am a seer, I am a liar.” Here’s an artist who, as best I can tell, has never, ever made art about his late father, a man who was proud of David’s talent but stingy with affection and gone before he could witness his son’s ascent into stardom — now, after all this time, he chooses to end his comeback album by singing, “My father ran the prison / I can only love you by hating him more / That’s not the truth — it’s too big a word / He believed that love is theft / Love and war / The theft of love.” It’s an atom bomb of self-revelation, exposing a previously unvoiced emotional wound as completely as the “peacock in the snow” Bowie describes himself as in the first verse.
After a career like Bowie’s, there’s no need for him to get this raw unless he feels like he’s stared into the abyss. Seems like he said to himself, “If I’m gonna make a comeback record, I’m gonna make it count.” The Next Day isn’t perfect. In the context of his catalog, it’s not even all that unique. In the context of his life, however, it stands alone, the sole marker of what he went through over the past decade (and the next day, and the next, and another day). That gives it a power all its own. If you’re looking for David Bowie’s most vital statement since his Big ’80s heyday, I think we just found it.
Sean T. Collins writes about TV, comics, music, and other things for Rolling Stone, The Comics Journal, BuzzFeed, and other places. He writes comics too.