Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is a great David Bowie record, and a weary reminder of how frustrating his output has been since its 1980 release. Plenty of established acts have albums like Scary Monsters (Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Metallica’s …And Justice For All, the Cure’s Wish) that are generally regarded as “the last good one,” if at least for a while. While Bowie had more commercially successful records, with Let’s Dance being the biggest example, Scary Monsters can be thought of as the last time his artistic and commercial execution was at its best. And every record he’s put out since then has been compared to it. It happened to Earthling, and Heathen, and Reality. Making such a comparison is a music critic cliché.
That said, um, The Next Day is arguably the most consistent Bowie record since Scary Monsters. It’s the not the first Bowie record to reference some of his previous styles, but after the decade-long silence that followed his heart attack, it is a welcome, surprising return to form. His voice is weathered and the tonal shifts are perhaps a bit more predictable, but this is still a Bowie record.
By which I mean he remains a savvy pop icon. The title implies Bowie hasn’t been away as long as we might think. The cover repurposes Heroes, one of his best loved albums. The songs generally reference the Berlin trilogy and Scary Monsters, with a few other twists sprinkled in. It’s a little mellowed by comparison and the vocals are much more weathered, but this is still the alien pseudo-funk Bowie used to drop effortlessly.
But as cagy as that might seem, The Next Day is still very much a surprising affair. “Where Are We Now?” was seriously misleading as a single, a somber treatise on fame and alienation (one of several here) that makes much more sense as a comedown after the rocking trio of opening tunes “The Next Day,” “Dirty Boys” and “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).” This record is just so damn alive, full of post-punk rhythms and Bowie’s soaring vocals. While it would have been a little tighter cut down to maybe 12 tracks, The Next Day has the kind of flow up-and-coming bands wish they could achieve.
Plenty of the tunes play with spacey arrangements that recall career highlights Low and Station to Station (and maybe the Cure’s Bloodflowers), but that doesn’t mean Bowie can’t slip in some musical surprises. “Valentine’s Day” packs a doo-wop sensibility on par with the Ziggy era. “If You Can See Me” finds him returning to the drum and bass style of Earthling. “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” has such a huge chorus and gnarly guitar riff that it’s almost infuriating that Bowie didn’t get around to it until his 24th got-damn album. “Heat” softly plays the 53-minute collection out.
Given his bevy of successes over the years (seriously, you can’t fuck with Bowie from 1969-1986, “Magic Dance” and all), Bowie didn’t need to make The Next Day. But it’s so awesome that he did it anyway. While I’m sure plenty of super fans are drunk off of its newness, and plenty more are just wary of yet another “Bowie is totally back for reals” review, The Next Day is a considerable late addition to his mighty canon.