Aging rock stars usually have two options: cling to their past or wildly reinvent themselves in a bid for relevance. David Bowie, who's releasing his 27th studio album at age 66, does neither. Instead, The Next Day sounds both true to his musical roots and remarkably contemporary, not unlike the trajectory taken by another seventies rock icon, David Byrne, who, like Bowie, seems renewed by his relationships with modern indie-rock acts such as Arcade Fire.
The album's energy is apparent from the first track. "The Next Day" is a punchy sing-a-long with a defiant chorus, as Bowie loudly proclaims, "Here I am, not quite dying." The rebellious spirit is appropriate given the album's cover, a vandalized version of his album Heroes, released in 1977, the year punk broke. Both Heroes and The Next Day were produced by Bowie's longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, and both share the same eclectic feel—at times funky, gritty, psychedelic, and bombastic.
The Next Day sounds so fresh it's hard to believe Bowie's been out of the music game for 10 years, following a heart attack. It's even harder to believe that his collaborators kept mum while recording the 30 songs in New York—later to be pared down to 14—so that the press was completely surprised by the release of the first single, "Where Are We Now?" The music video shows Bowie as a melancholy two-headed puppet intercut with old footage of West Berlin, the city he lived in while making his Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, and Lodger), which were written while he tried to kick his drug habit and are widely regarded as the most experimental albums of his career. "Where Are We Now?" is an elegiac song balancing mournful piano chords with building, optimistic drum beats.
It's a nice moment of calm between bouncy electric freakouts like "Dancing Out in Space" and the antiwar rock song "I'd Rather Be High." One of the more intriguing tracks, "If You Can See Me," features a sonically rich, fractured sound that wouldn't be out of place in a Brooklyn coffee shop next to tracks by St. Vincent or the Dirty Projectors.
Bowie's voice might not be able to yelp and soar like it used to, but it still has tremendous agility and vibrancy. How does he feel about getting older? The video for "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," arguably the album's best song, provides some clues. He and his female look-alike Tilda Swinton play a married couple whose calm suburban life is interrupted by a young rock-star couple (models Andrej Pejic and Saskia De Brauw). In the end, however, it's neither nostalgic nor dismissive of youth. Rather, it has an attitude toward aging that's unsentimental and allusive. In other words, Bowie does on The Next Day what he has been doing since the 1970s: keeping people guessing.
—Keith Wagstaff is a writer and an editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @kwagstaff.