ROCK / Merry Easter, Mr Bowie,you're back on form: David Bowie's new album is his best in donkey's years, they say. But they're not sure they want you to hear it. Ben Thompson got hold of a copy

'AND THIS,' as Mike Yarwood, colossus of TV impersonation, used to say towards the end of his show, 'is me.' But Yarwood's audience didn't want him to be himself, they wanted him to be Denis Healey. And so it's been with David Bowie for the past 10 years or so. Each time he has reappeared, it has been as the 'real' David Bowie; all the hype has been about the absence of the disguises and contrivance that made him famous and interesting in the first place, and the world has not stifled a yawn.

It was hardly surprising that Bowie had so little to offer in the Eighties. He'd already lived through them. Few of the decade's cultural landmarks - from Madonna's re-inventions to A Flock of Seagulls' haircuts - could deny some kind of precedent in David Jones's Seventies style odyssey. But at some point early in the Thatcher years, David Bowie went to sleep. When he woke up, he was trapped inside the imagination of Hazel O'Connor.

Let's Dance (1983) sold in enormous numbers at the time but proved one of his least durable albums. His next two LPs, Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987), saw him lapsing ever further into the creative doldrums, and the Glass Spider tour was probably his nadir. Given the lack of inspiration in his solo works, perhaps submerging his identity within that of the space-age pub-rock band Tin Machine wasn't such a bad idea. But no one much saw it that way. The Sound and Vision greatest-hits tour at the turn of the decade was sabotaged by legions of satirical punters ringing the request phonelines and demanding 'The Laughing Gnome'. By the time of the second Tin Machine album in 1991, Bowie had become little more than a laughing stock.

Two years later, he's a name to conjure with again, thanks to a new generation of Brit-pop fops weaned on 'Starman', like Suede and the Auteurs. And the rumour has been going round that the rehabilitation extends to his creative powers. David Bowie has come through a bad decade before - he wasted the Sixties trying to be a family entertainer too - and a few weeks ago a news item in Rolling Stone magazine suggested that his new album, Black Tie White Noise, might be a genuine return to form. Understandably keen to preserve this impression, Bowie's record label has gone to absurd lengths to stop anyone hearing the album. A TV advert has been prepared which cannily comprises 10 seconds of silence. Two weeks before release, just three 'selected tracks' were authorised for listening to, and those under armed guard at Bowie's PR company. Only by subterfuge was your correspondent able to appraise the full 13 songs.

The obvious explanation for all this - that the album is in fact a complete stinker - is, happily, not the right one. The first single, 'Jump They Say', really has got more momentum and twist than anything Bowie has done for years, and is already his first Top 10 hit since 'Absolute Beginners' in 1986. And it turns out to be representative: this is his best, most interesting album since Scary Monsters in 1980. Unlike fellow glam-rock survivor Bryan Ferry, Bowie has managed to write some releasable new songs in the six-year interval between solo albums. The results - an assortment of instrumentals, big pop numbers and artful Euro-slink, with a couple of cover versions - are patchy, but no less intriguing for that.

The list of players suggests a calculated ransacking of the past: Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, Let's Dance producer Nile Rodgers, Diamond Dogs piano-man Mike Garson. But new sidemen have been called up too, and their contributions stand out. There's American soul singer Al B Sure, with whom Bowie duets on the strange and compelling title track - a more than usually intelligent plea for racial understanding ('You won't kill me, but I wonder why sometimes'), which suggests the Thin White Duke has left the coked-up idiocy of his old Fascist flirtations far behind. The star of the show, though, is Lester Bowie (no relation). The brilliant free-jazz trumpeter not only provides a dazzling foil for Dave's ham-fisted but passionate sax, but also saves at least one song - 'You've Been Around' - from a close resemblance to Visage.

The album gets off to a slow start, with 'The Wedding', a pleasant, Low-ish instrumental theme, later reprised with words; if Brian Eno can get away with delivering a lecture about Bowie's marriage, I suppose the man himself is entitled to sing about it. It picks up pace three songs in with a weird version of Cream's 'I Feel Free' - not a return to the brass-tacks Sixties nostalgia of Pin- Ups but a lush reworking influenced by Bobby McFerrin's Cadbury's adverts. From then on, there's no going back, even if the other cover - a jokily overblown reading of Morrissey's 'I Know it's Going to Happen Someday' ('it's me doing Morrissey doing me,' Bowie proudly told Rolling Stone) - does rather collapse under the weight of its own irony.

'Nite Flights' has that special blend of luxury and claustrophobia that is the nearest Bowie gets to being relaxed, and showcases his queasy operatic holler to winning effect. 'Pallas Athena' is an authentically strange, sub-house sampling doodle. Even apparently straightforward pop numbers, such as the extremely catchy 'Miracle Goodnight' and the courtly 'Don't Let me Down & Down', steer clear of the blandness which was in danger of becoming his trademark.

Black Tie White Noise is a return to the traditions of Bowie's plastic-soul period - Young Americans and Station to Station - and his ground-breaking Eno trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger. In an NME interview this week, the man himself said that his new record would have made a worthier successor to Scary Monsters than Let's Dance did. If only he'd realised that at the time.

'Black Tie White Noise' is out on 5 April (Arista, LP/CD/tape, not all tracks on all formats). Ben Thompson reviews Suede's LP on 'The Critics' pages in the main paper.

(Photograph omitted)