Album review: David Bowie, The Next Day (Iso/Columbia)

Album of the week: A Heroes return as Bowie sets the world on fire

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The Independent Culture

Rarely has a comeback been effected with such panache as David Bowie displays on The Next Day. Even the unassuming announcement, with suddenly a single appearing, like the world's best-planned afterthought, has a classy poise all but abandoned in the scramble for talent-show celebrity.

Then there's the cover, simultaneously self-effacing and self-aggrandising in the crafty way it both uses and denies Heroes – and beyond that, the clearest indicator of the style and quality of music it contains. These songs fizz and crackle with echoes of Bowie's classic Berlin period, but somehow sound fiercely contemporary. The single “Where Are We Now?” is the most overt reference to that time, Bowie reminiscing with misty-eyed, oceanic melancholy about his time in the city; but it's stylistically apart from the rest of the album, which charges along with bullish rude health on stalking funk-rock grooves girdered with brusque, visceral guitar riffs and coloured by keyboards.

Occasionally, honking baritone sax adds a taste of greasy Fifties R'n'B; sometimes, strings lend grace, especially allied to the clarinet and recorder on the second single “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, a warning about the celebrity undead who “burn you with their radium smiles and trap you with their beautiful eyes”.

Death stalks many of these songs, from the reluctant combatant of “I'd Rather Be High” to the protagonist of “The Next Day” itself, his body “left to rot in a hollow tree”. Like much of the album, it's said to be inspired by Bowie's current fascination with nasty, brutish medieval history; but as with songs such as “If You Can See Me” and the suicidal “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die”, the violence seems bang up to date.

Elsewhere, “Dancing Out in Space” and “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” offer obvious, hooky singles potential, before the album comes to a close with the Scott Walker-esque portents and apocalyptic tone of “Heat”, a meditation on identity that concludes with typically Bowiean Janus-face, “I am a seer, but I am a liar”. Or to paraphrase: a storyteller.

Download:  The Next Day; (You Will) Set the World on Fire; Where Are We Now?; The Stars (Are Out Tonight); You Feel So Lonely You Could Die