Album: David Bowie, The Next Day (RCA)

He's been drip-feeding us the clues.

The strangely artless artwork (The Heroes cover blanked out with a white square and the title in pseudo-Helvetica). The teaser single "Where Are We Now?", wherein this Englishman In New York reminisced about old friends and Old Europe. Now it's here, and it's clear: The Next Day's primary concern is the delicious cruelty with which the past haunts the present. "Just walking the dead", indeed.

This album is not David Bowie's first overtly nostalgic work, the first to reference his own career, nor the first to feature meditations on aging, but it repeats those tricks with immense style. On "Love Is Lost", he brutally commands you to "say goodbye to the thrills of life ... wave goodbye to the life without pain". On "How Does The Grass Grow?", amid Fifties ya-ya-ya-yas and snatches of Bond theme, he daydreams "If the clocks could go backwards, then the girls would fill with blood and the grass would be green".

"Where Are We Now?" isn't the only track to dance with the Ghost Of Bowie Past. The clanging title track, in which he inhabits the persona of a deposed medieval tyrant and imagines a "gormless and baying crowd" who "can't get enough of that doomsday song", inescapably recalls the kids-had-killed-the-man denouement of "Ziggy Stardust".

"Dancing Out In Space" is a once-removed cousin to "Modern Love". "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die", a showstopping ballad, ends with the exact drum motif with which Woody Woodmansey began "Five Years".And the sax sound on "Boss Of Me" is straight out of Low.

Picking a weak spot ain't easy. "I'd Rather Be High" perhaps struggles to hold the listener's concentration, but that's it. Tony Visconti doesn't mess about, and this might be Bowie's most populist record since Let's Dance. He's in masterful voice and his band are at full throttle. The turbulent "If You Can See Me" is a highlight, as is the irresistibly melodic "Valentine's Day" and the burlesque stripper sleaze of "Dirty Boys".

Finale "Heat" finds him imagining himself "a peacock in the snow", repeating the line "and I tell myself I don't know who I am". An(other) identity crisis? How utterly Bowie. The point, one assumes, being that The Next Day is a corrupted copy of The Previous Day, and he's trapped in a feedback loop, a groundhog life. David Bowie's perpetual predicament is that he can't escape David Bowie's past. In that respect, he's just like the rest of us: we can't escape David Bowie's past either. The Next Day leaves you wondering why you'd ever want to.