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The Next Day

Tom Wateracre

David Bowie
ISO/Columbia Records

RBowiemusicreview.jpgAging has been a preoccupation of David Bowie since the beginning of his career. It's a metamorphosis much slower than his lightning quick development in the 1970s, from Ziggy to Thin White Duke to Berlin, but one he's been aware of all along. 'Look out, you rock n' rollers / Pretty soon now, you're going to get older', he sang in 1971, and following a heart attack while touring his 2003 record Reality, he must have felt another change was about due. He effectively retired for the next decade, his output dwindling to an occasional guest vocal, his legacy complete.

However, within seconds of the start of The Next Day, we're aware that someone has put something pretty exciting in Bowie's tea, because he sounds engaged, creative, eager to take risks. The album opens with the thumps and screeches of the titular 'The Next Day', the angular chops reminiscent of his single 'Fashion', Bowie's voice wheedling, hectoring and growling. The second track is even better, deepening the feeling of a creative corner turned. 'Dirty Boys' is a quacking New Orleans funeral march by way of Iggy Pop's 'Nightclubbing'.

Rather than the late-period cosiness of his previous three albums, where aping the style of his glory days was an attempt to remind the world of his relevance, The Next Day has an iconoclastic glee at tearing away bits of Bowie's history and deconstructing them for nobler ends. 'Valentine's Day' builds a slice of '70s narrative pop from a Mick Ronson-esque crunchy guitar line and sha-la-la backing vocals, and '(You Will) Set The World On Fire' trips between punky rock and Bowie's inherent pop sensibilities. Even the cover art takes the past and cheekily, unforgivably, obliterates it with a square of nothingness - the past informing the present, but ultimately discarded.

Bowie's lyrics here are dense with oblique imagery, even in the quieter moments. Take 'Where Are We Now', a gorgeous, heart-aching ballad that echoes his experimental heights by namedropping Berlin landmarks. He seems to be once again drawing inspiration from his long-term hero and rival Scott Walker, most notably on 'Heat', the final track on the album, which sees Bowie appropriating Walker's haunted crooning. Walker found a way to turn his pop career into a vehicle for albums like The Drift - challenging, uncomfortable, explosive - and maybe Bowie is now ready to follow his lead.

You get the sense that Bowie made this record in response to becoming an institution, an influence, passive and inert. On the title track he snarls 'Here I am, not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree', and mortality hangs heavily everywhere, his raging at the dying of the light giving him permission to follow his impulses. It's this emotion that turns it from a late-career cash grab into something more vital.

Creativity is bound to wax and wane over a 50-year music career, and The Next Day is a reminder that passion and invention aren't the preserves of the you8ng and up-and-coming. After a break from the album-tour-album cycle and a wander in the wilderness, Bowie sounds reinvigorated and alive, ready to try something new in a career that has seen so much change. Thrillingly, it suggests he isn't finished yet, and there's still an appetite for turning and facing the strange.