There’s always a question of whether or not icons can sustain their status and relevance as they age. Tied to histories that have cultivated their own mythology over time, we’ve been presented with comeback albums grasping onto some semblance of the youth they thrived in. In the chorus of the opening song off an album that came as a welcome shock to fans and loyal followers, David Bowie simply responds to the curious and the skeptical: “Here I am, not quite dying.”
From there on, The Next Day unveils itself as one of the singer’s most intimate outputs. Being one of rock’s most malleable and evolving characters, Bowie has been able to adapt himself to the characters and moments he needed to at any point, but the theatrics don’t feel as prevalent on The Next Day as they have in the past. He feels unmasked; stripped of Ziggy, Major Tom, and the Thin White Duke, we’re left with an older man who only visits the past with a tip of his hat and a reflective nod. No longer is he reconditioning and shaping an imagined future — he’s living in it and speaks of it with a new sense of clarity.
Even with an arm’s length distance with his past, there’s a semblance of career-tracking that pervades each song. The sounds span decades and his voice and melodies are rooted in a self-made and unmatched trajectory. The ragged thinness of his voice and folksy elements recall his psychedelic-folk beginnings like the kind heard on his self-titled debut album from the late-’60s.
Hints of ’80s new wave (“Valentine’s Day” and “Dancing Out in Space” sound like they could soundtrack an Molly Ringwald scene from a John Hughes film) and ’70s sleaze (Scorcese could build a classic film off the drag of “Dirty Boys”) are inescapable. The most revealing and outstanding track, however, is “Where Are We Now,” an introspective ballad and the first single, released on his 66th birthday.
As Bowie reflects and distances from the past, his tight bros from way back in the ’70s, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, are also preparing to release a new album with the less hopeful title of Ready to Die (unfortunately not a collection of Biggie covers) in April. For the Stooges, this marks a second try at a comeback after a much longer sojourn than Bowie gave himself. When they reunited for the first time since 1973’s Raw Power to release 2007’s The Weirdness, expectations for the sound to be a loyal companion to earlier work were barely met, to the dismay of many fans and critics. From what they’ve previewed of the new material, that’s changed. The first single, “Burn,” retains that “Gimme Danger” swagger and doom that put them on the map, while anthemical and blue-collar “Job” could have been a manifesto of punk as a whole had it been released 40 years ago. It works quite nicely in the present day.
Stagnancy is something Iggy Pop can get away with, his image consistent through the years. Bowie, however, is a man of many faces. He rebuilds himself and destroys what we chose to create as a picture of his identity. In “Where Are We Now,” for example, he muses on his time and life in Berlin with ambiguity that is so carefully constructed that it almost tricks you into believing you understand his meaning. With locations referenced almost like snapshots in the lyrics and grainy images of the city in the background of the song’s accompanying video, all that can really be pulled from whatever story he’s telling is a lack of the initial defiance that once led him there. Iggy, who spent time in Berlin with Bowie, gives the same subtle nod with a coy delivery of the lyric “Berlin style” in the eye of “Burn”‘s destructive whirlwind. They’re almost complimentary to one another; it’s like having the two artists as the Angel and the Devil on your shoulders giving hints to and teases of the memories of that era.
With his changes and surprises with every new album and turning point, sometimes unpacking Bowie is what you need to do in order to truly appreciate him. The video for his second single, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” is a meta-example of his escape from history and refusal to let it define the future he’s built. He’s turned around, faced himself, and allowed time to be the master of his form. No longer is space an abyss that he can fear getting lost in, but rather he’s there now and maybe can help navigate the rest of us through it, too.