For a man who was The Future for so very long, it seems unlikely that David Bowie ever stopped to ask what he would be doing in the actual future. Back in the seventies when he was making as many stylistic leaps forward as The Beatles had in the previous decade, Bowie’s possible futures were as endless and tantalising as the era was blank and bleak.
Back then, his very presence gave us all hope that one day all pop stars would be this good. Over 30 years later and there is still no life on Mars (that we know of) and the super-ego pop star Bowie spawned is called Lady Gaga. Bowie’s own “Future” began in 1983 with Let’s Dance, a fateful embrace of commercialism that many consider to be his last great album in the same way that Some Girls is always rolled out as The Stones' last great album or Goodfellas is referenced as the last time Robert De Niro still actually cared.
And that’s that, right? Bowie will only ever be talked about in terms of the seventies. After Let’s Dance, everything he did was greeted with the mounting realisation that the genie was out of the bottle. The Glass Spider nonsense was followed by the Tin Machine nonsense and by the time he'd realigned his creative stars in the 90s, Bowie’s run of new albums suffered unfair comparisons to his golden years despite the fact that most of them (and 2002's Heathen in particular) were very good.
Since his heart attack in 2004, rumours of Garboesque seclusion and even imminent death have been the distant transmissions from Bowie world. Maybe he was just waiting for the call back from Spongebob and holding out for news of Labyrinth 2. And he was, let's not forget, very funny on Extras.
So last January's return was a rare thing in world of carefully controlled information overload - a genuine surprise. Now aged 66, Bowie’s back with an album that is not the sound of reinvention but the sound of Bowie re-engaged, re-energised, and very confrontational about a lot of things. Not least fame, stupid fame and if anybody has a right to talk about how we’ve sacrificed actual art and culture for stupid quick-fix celebrity, it’s David Bowie, a man who has spent most of his life blurring the lines between both. So the toxicity of celebrity is a theme as is (once again) the sinister rise of technology and the bloke who was releasing songs online back in 1994, would know about that too.
He's slapped an out-sized Post-It note on the cover of Heroes for the sleeve of The Next Day and it's as if he’s blanking out a first draft (and what a first draft) and turning his mind to similar notions and themes for a much-changed world. The Next Day’s returns to territory Bowie often explored before and musically it also recalls Lodger and Scary Monsters but also far more recent albums than that - it struts about dangerously, it's restless, it's jumpy, and there is a real directness.
Dirty Boys, for example, rejoices in honks of sleazy brass and frazzled bursts of rhythm guitar, Love is Lost is all squealing guitar and whining organ, and on The Stars are Out Tonight, a song that bears comparison with Steely Dan’s Showbiz Kids in its revulsion of celebrities, Bowie suggests that actors and pop stars may in fact be alien life forms sucking energy from the mere mortals who congregate to worship them. As elborate in-jokes go, it's a pretty good one.
Interestingly enough after those violent and chaotic opening songs, Where Are We Now?, the single he released last January, takes on an added grandeur, sounding even better in the context of a full album. But the sense of modern dread returns on If You Can See Me, a shouty and atonal barrage that's anchored by a massive backbeat and ends with cello scrapes. Perhaps to make the (maybe) anti-war message of I’d Rather be High very clear, bright crisp guitars dominate.
Dancing Out in Space may have a worrying title (is he off on another trip on the Gemini spaceship?) but happily, it has the same kind of forward momentum and near sense of imminent collapse as his old friends Arcade Fire. On You Feel so Lonely You Could Die, a majestic ballad with the same dramatic sweep of Life on Mars, Bowie leaves a trail of clues (“no one saw you moving through the park leaving scraps of paper in the dark”) that heighten the sense of dark mystery on The Next Day.
He finishes with the nearest he's come to self-confession on a strange song called Heat, a humid, claustrophobic thing that would have co-conspirator Scott Walker nodding approvingly. It brings to a close a fabulous, vivid and absorbing album from one of the true geniuses in music.
It’s brilliant. Did you really expect anything less Earthlings?