David Bowie retreated after suffering a heart attack in 2004, leaving many of his fans to wonder if he had retired. He recorded secretly in New York the past couple of years, announced the imminent release of The Next Day on his 66th birthday in January, and has said nothing about its contents publicly.
Absence has clearly made the heart fonder, judging by the pre-release raves for his first new music in 10 years. Simmer down. This does not auger a return to Bowie's 1970s glory days, although The Next Day is certainly more focused than his string of forgettable work in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The album cover and song Where Are We Now? harken back to Bowie's fruitful period in Berlin. The moody, atmospheric song has Bowie, in a voice rendered fragile by age, wandering the German streets again. Like Heroes, it ultimately soars and is life-affirming.
It also sounds like nothing else on the disc, not only in tempo but in the personal glimpse it offers. Bowie is a reporter, and sings of medieval evil, the shamed offspring of a prison warden, and, unexpectedly, Bob Dylan, in the roaring rocker (You Will) Set the World on Fire.
Bowie sounds refreshed, happy to be working at his own pace, and producer Tony Visconti is one of his best collaborators. Most compelling are The Stars (Are Out Tonight), which addresses celebrity as both necessary and an evil, and Dancing Out in Space.
The balance is more solid than spectacular. While a welcome return for those who know him, The Next Day isn't likely to get more than a shrug from a new generation of fans.