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The cover of David Bowie's new album The Next Day is actually the cover of Bowie's 1977 album Heroes, with a white square placed over the singer's face. It's a brilliantly simple yet shrewd piece of appropriated art, a gesture announcing that Bowie will not try to break with his past, but instead will transmute it, refract it and, if he's lucky, deepen it. Because depth is something David Bowie has usually, often wisely, resisted. In taking on, over the decades, different costumes and guises — Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke — and in gliding across the surface of genres such as glam rock, hard rock and disco, Bowie has proven a surprisingly durable artist. He's someone whose best songs allow him to make emotional, even moving music without becoming maudlin or melodramatic or, heaven forbid, sentimental.
The song "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" proceeds from the title pun to suggest that stars — celebrities — haunt the lives of us ordinary folk, and that they're as jealous of our lives as some of us are of theirs. The video for the song, co-starring Bowie and Tilda Swinton, finds them playing a happily aging couple who shop for groceries and chuckle unironically at TV sitcoms, even as their mundane activities are observed by young, glamorous people literally dying for such contentment. The music of "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" is all guitar- and drum-driven urgency, with Bowie yelling with deliberate hoarseness over the instruments, his voice a metaphor for the exhausted dread contained in the lyric.
By contrast, the lovely croon he uses in "Where Are We Now?" evokes life in Berlin, a reminder that the album itself reunites Bowie with producer Tony Visconti, with whom Bowie made his so-called "Berlin trilogy" of albums: Low, Heroes and Lodger. But Bowie and Visconti don't merely reconnect with some of the sounds of that late-'70s period, extending even to the use of some familiar Bowie musicians, such as guitarist Earl Slick. No, they also acknowledge other albums, including what I consider Bowie's finest, Station to Station, and other producers who've helped in Bowie's evolution — most notably Nile Rodgers, who guided the star through one of his best albums, Let's Dance.
You can hear this confluence of influences in a jittery, hammering song such as "Love Is Lost." "Wave goodbye to the life without pain," Bowie sings there, and in a song that offers a mock-hymn to that ceaseless modern quest for "the new," it's also an acknowledgment of the physical pain of aging, as well as romantic agony.
In general, I find the structure of The Next Day significant, because it plays like a collection of discreet singles — songs each in a different style, genre, mood — very much in the current mode of consuming music, downloading one hit (or potential hit) at a time. Yet the music also coheres as an album in the classic-rock sense: a unified statement that can be listened to at full length, to tell a story about one man's progression through innocence, experience, arrogance, cynicism, doubt, redemption and inspiration. Yes, that's overstating it a bit, but not much. Yes, some of these steps falter in melody, or in sustaining the desired effect. But in general, The Next Day is a thriller, not merely a return to form — partly because David Bowie never took one form to begin with. This is his now-continuing contribution to pop music: the notion that restlessness and melancholy can yield more pleasure than anyone might reasonably expect.