David Bowie, The Next Day (ISO/Columbia) * * *
David Bowie seemed to have settled into a low-key retirement following emergency surgery to repair a blocked coronary artery after his 2004 tour. So when he emerged in January on his 66th birthday to announce he had completed his first album in 10 years, his fans’ pent-up excitement turned Tuesday’s release of Bowie’s 24th studio album into an event, something that hasn’t been the case for a Bowie release in decades.
Yet the first single, the moody crawl Where Are We Now, was an odd way to say hello again, especially since its downbeat tone doesn’t represent the overall vitality of the album. In sound and style, it harkens to earlier efforts like Scary Monsters, Low and Heroes (whose LP cover this one defaces in a misguided album art design.) The haunted Where Are We Now depicts an older man reflecting on the passing of time in a resigned voice. “Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz/You never knew that/That I could do that/Just walking the dead.” At best, it piqued interest and got people talking. But the song is dull and never achieves liftoff.
While the title track also addresses similar themes — “Here am I, not quite dying/My body left to rot in a hollow tree” — Bowie is in reporter mode with traces of optimism on a considerably more buoyant track. A Scary Monsters-era New Wave backbeat and squalling guitars support Bowie’s baritone.
Bowie’s instrument isn’t as supple as it once was — his phrasing has turned staccato and sometimes frail — but his voice retains its distinctive coloring. The second single, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), is also immediate and familiar and announces that Bowie is, indeed, back and committed to making music again with longtime producer Tony Visconti.
Even better, the driving (You Will) Set the World on Fire boasts the most infectious pop/rock hook Bowie has baited in the 30 years since Let’s Dance. The opening stanza effectively transports listeners to New York’s Village in the 1960s through references to activist folk artists Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Odetta and Joan Baez. Bowie, once again in observational mode, celebrates them for their ability to channel range into art that leads to societal change. He likens them to an unidentified rock savior who will do the same for the current generation. “Baez leaves the stage/Ochs takes notes/When the black girl and guitar/Burn together hot in rage/You’ve got what it takes.”
The Next Day won’t replace Station to Station or Ziggy Stardust on a fan’s Bowie’s Best Playlist. But when the old chameleon clicks on the keepers — which also include the spry Valentine’s Day and Dirty Boys, a late-night hallucinogenic — his reemergence in the studio sidesteps innovation but delivers comforting nostalgia for Bowie-philes.
Download: (You Will) Set the World on Fire, The Next Day, The Stars (Are Out Tonight).
• QUICK TAKES
Sound City Players, Sound City — Real to Reel (RCA) * * 1/2 Dave Grohl’s affectionate film documentary to a beloved but defunct analog Van Nuys recording studio begets a supergroup project featuring Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, Joshua Homme and others backed by members of the Foo Fighters. The novelty is that the entire album was recorded on the same Neve 8028 console that Fleetwood Mac, Cheap Trick and Nirvana used to cut and mix tracks on some of their classic albums. Most of the songs sound like grunge- and punk-era leftovers, but only a past-his-prime Paul McCartney fronting the surviving members of Nirvana truly embarrasses himself. Best bets: A husky Nicks recapturing her Rumours vibe on You Can’t Fix This, a shattering dénouement of a friendship lost, and a surprisingly muscular Rick Springfield rocker, The Man That Never Was.
Eric Clapton, Old Sock (Bushbranch/Surfdog) * * * Clapton’s singing has never been as celebrated as his guitar playing, but that should change with the release of this laid-back, mostly covers set of standards, blues, reggae and vintage folk. Clapton’s weathered, expressive voice is just the tonic as it weaves among the tunes on this comforting charmer. Cream fans will mourn the mellowing of the Guitar God, but the sunny Old Sock is just right for your next drive through the Florida Keys.
The Mavericks, In Time (Valory) * * * * From Miami to Nashville, the Mavericks now belong to the world on the one-time country band’s first album in 10 years. In Time marries Cuban influences, Tex-Mex, bolero, Roy Orbison-worthy pop, shuffles and Raul Malo’s peerless vocals into the best party album released so far in 2013.
Bon Jovi, What About Now (Island) * With dreary dirges like these, the answer is: How about never?
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