David Bowie has sung a song or two about outer space before. But “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is one of the greatest songs the man has ever written, soaring on guitar and strings and that uncanny voice. Bowie sings about two lovers looking at the night sky, where they see the whole universe buzzing with activity: “We will never be rid of these stars/But I hope they live forever.” They feel the stardust in their hearts blaze to life. And they suddenly feel like they’re part of the cosmos, if only because they’re together. It’s like Bowie decided to fuse “Heroes” and “Space Oddity” into the same song, a feat he’s never attempted before. Holy shit, David Bowie.
It’s a triumphant moment on a triumphant album. The Next Day is the comeback Bowie fans feared would never happen. After a health scare ended his 2004 tour, he kept his distance, and most of us figured the Thin White Duke had finally rocked his last roll. Even hardcore Bowie freaks couldn’t begrudge him a cozy retirement in his golden years.
But it turns out that Bowie and cozy still aren’t the best of friends. In January, on his 66th birthday, he shocked everyone by announcing he had a new album ready to go. The sessions for The Next Day were top-secret. Nobody’s done it this way before: hit a creative peak, take 10 years off, then spring a surprise return on the world.
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The Next Day has a strong connection to the late-1970s period when Bowie and producer Tony Visconti made their Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger. It also has the low-register guitar attack of Scary Monsters. The songs are in the reflective mode of his excellent (if crazily underrated) midlife LPs: Earthling and Hours in the late 1990s, Heathen and Reality in the early 2000s. The sharp-edged guitars suit the tunes – wry, soulful, adult, resistant to maudlin hysterics or overwrought sentiment.
“The Next Day” sets the tone right from the opening moments, rocking out as Bowie snarls, “Here I am, not quite died/My body left to rot in a hollow tree.” Even though he sings, “I can’t get enough of that doomsday song,” Bowie has never sounded further from doomsday. Instead, he ranges from a furious anti-war rant (“I’d Rather Be High”) to compassion for doomed youth (“Love Is Lost”) to marital love (“Dancing Out in Space”). The album ends with the spaced-out electronic drone of “Heat,” as he repeats the words “I tell myself/I don’t know who I am.”
Though he sings most of The Next Day in his staccato rock voice, Bowie holds back his torch-song theatrics for two big ballads, the goth doo-wop of “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” and the majestic New Romantic love song “Where Are We Now?” The whole album evokes his old friend John Lennon‘s “In My Life” – in a way, every song here could be a sequel to that one. There are loads of musical and lyrical references to his past, as Bowie broods over the places he’s gone and the faces he’s seen. But he’s resolutely aimed at the future. And when he hits the delirious heights of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” he makes the future sound irresistible.