David Bowie has spent much of his career shocking people. In the early 1970s the iconoclastic British glam rocker publicly proclaimed his homosexuality and then embarked on a series of tumultuous affairs with women. He shaved his eyebrows, invented an alter ego called Ziggy Stardust, and donned a series of bright, painted-on outfits that only a person ingesting mountains of cocaine would dare leave the house wearing. In 1973 he disbanded his hugely successful backup group, the Spiders from Mars, onstage without having given the musicians any prior notice. Halfway through the subsequent Diamond Dogs tour, which featured a gigantic claw, a duet with a skull (à la Hamlet), and a lot of half-baked Orwell references, he ditched the whole thing, put on a coat and tie, and did the rest of the scheduled dates in stripped-down “plastic soul” mode. The late 1970s found him reversing stylistic course once again as he recorded three experimental albums that contained the template for what came to be called “New Wave.” On the heels of that achievement he went “pop” and rocked a shade of hair dye so bright it burned holes into onlookers’ retinas.
Eventually he wed the Somalian model Iman. Here too Bowie defied rock-star convention, by actually staying married. And as the entire Western world voluntarily abandoned the concept of privacy in the mid 2000s, David Bowie — that most public of entertainers — disappeared. Now, with no explanation for his nearly decade-long absence, he is suddenly back, his new album The Next Day having already become the biggest-selling record of 2013 in just its first week of sales.
It is surprising, given his long tenure in the spotlight, that the “real” David Bowie remains elusive. In some interviews he comes off as stately and erudite and in others giggly and ditzy. He has changed his appearance and his mannerisms as frequently as he’s changed his sound, leading some critics to accuse him of shallowness, opportunism, and cold calculation. Bowie himself seemed to concur with these assessments in the song “Ashes to Ashes,” from the 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) — one of his few instances of openly autobiographical writing:
I’ve never done good things
I’ve never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue
Want an axe to break the ice
I want to come down right now
In the chorus, he goes on to refer to himself, via his alter-ego Major Tom, as a “junkie, strung out on heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low.” Yet even this bit of self-laceration may be disingenuous. He never did anything out of the blue? Really? I suppose it’s possible that his many pivots were carefully planned, but to his continually disoriented audience almost everything came out of the blue.
Through it all there have been at least a few constants: the formidable songwriting talent, a gift for melody, and that voice — sometimes sonorous, sometimes thin and tremulous, always arresting. Despite the “shallowness” tag, several of his albums — Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Station to Station, Low, Heroes, and Scary Monsters — have now come to be regarded as classics.
Bowie’s final album before his self-imposed seclusion was 2003’s Reality — a fitting capstone that touched on many of the disparate styles he had embraced over the years. During the ensuing decade, no new music emerged, and there would be no more touring. The era of Facebook and Twitter began without him. By the end of the decade his website lay fallow.
As 2013 rolled around, very few people could have reasonably expected anything new from David Bowie. Rumors of ill health had flitted about for years, and even many of his former associates had assumed he’d retired. Then, on January 8, a new single appeared on iTunes, along with an announcement of the imminent release of The Next Day. It was one of the most exquisite sneak attacks in the history of rock. And with the excitement came speculation: Which Bowie would we get this time?
David Bowie’s current image, as it turns out, is no image. He has refused all new interview requests. He has ruled out a tour. The album’s artwork consists simply of the cover of his earlier release Heroes with the singer’s face blocked out by an empty white square. At age 66, Bowie has made possibly his most outrageous move yet: He has finally gotten out of the way of his music, and in so doing has brought a little bit of mystery back into pop culture. While everybody else has a reality show, David Bowie has a white square where his head should be.
He can get away with this because The Next Day is an honest-to-God album, meant to be listened to as one piece rather than as a scattered collection of iTunes downloads. In this sense it is both archaic and forward-looking — its very existence is a sign, or a hopeful prediction, of some kind of return to craftsmanship in popular music. We’ve already seen harbingers of this in the success of Adele’s album 21 and the resurgent popularity of “roots” music among younger listeners; people are once again responding to music that sounds real. The Next Day, even with its freaked-out guitars and fuzzy synths, feels similarly authentic: It is refreshingly free of any discernible loops or electronic drums; the vocals have not been strangled by Auto-Tune; none of the musicians e-mailed their parts in from distant locales. It sounds like what it is: a small group of people working closely together in a studio, tracking much of the music live.
Yet this is no regression. The spiky rocker “Valentine’s Day” may sound like a lost track from the Ziggy Stardust album, but its lyrics pertain to a school shooting. And “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” could be interpreted as both an homage to Odetta and the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s and as the seductive whisperings of a Svengali to the next Britney Spears: “You will set the world, babe, you will set the world on fire / I can work the scene / I can see the magazines,” though the narrator ultimately undercuts his own enthusiasm with a repeated “You say too much.”
Sprinkled here and there are pieces of what might be autobiography. In “Where Are We Now?” we are introduced to “a man lost in time” who is “walking the dead.” From “Love Is Lost”: “You refuse to talk but you think like mad.” In “Heat”: “And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am . . . I am a seer / but I am a liar.”
And how about this refrain from the title track:
Here I am
Not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows on the gallows for me
But these are mere glimpses. The real David Bowie remains as hidden as ever; his obfuscation, once regarded as a drawback, now seems, in our age of overexposure, as enticing as an oasis in a desert.
Thematically and sonically, The Next Day is not the graceful meditation on aging and mortality some might have expected. It seethes with unfathomable rage. It rocks like CBGB’s in the glory days. It is weird and wonderful and undeniably alive. While it may not be “the greatest comeback album in rock ’n’ roll history,” as Andy Gill of The Independent claims, it is pretty damn solid. There are nods to Bowie’s past and to his influences (Scott Walker, the Shadows, etc.) and, at this late stage in the game, some forays into hitherto uncharted territory.
Lastly, just in case anyone was pining for the annoying chipmunk vocal effect from “The Laughing Gnome” (1967), it’s back in the song “If You Can See Me.” Why? If the singer holds fast to his vow to not give an interview ever again, we’ll never know.
An Album of the Year Grammy award for David Bowie is long overdue. I look forward to the ceremony, and I look forward to him not showing up.
— Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.