Nine years ago, David Bowie suffered a heart attack while touring his latest album and went into relative seclusion. If that had been the last we'd ever heard of the British rocker, his legacy would still be enormous. But now the 66-year-old chameleon has unexpectedly released a powerful album that is an elegy to inevitability of getting older, and to the mourning which that entails. The Next Day is topping the charts in the U.K. and, with a debut at number 2, is Mr. Bowie's highest-charting album ever in the United States. Somehow, we seem to need the man more than ever.
Ever since his debut album in 1967, Mr. Bowie has been one of those rare artists who has refused to be pinned down or to capitalize on the success of previous sounds. First came the more traditional pop of his early albums, some of it with roots in folk music. It was impossible to turn on a radio in 1969 without hearing Space Oddity.
When fans subsequently went nuts for the glam rock of his Ziggy Stardust days, Mr. Bowie suddenly changed hats again and released Young Americans, on which he played out his obsession with soul music and gave the world the hit Fame. Then came experiments in minimalism, dance music, hard rock and electronica. If you wanted your favourite pop star to keep singing the same song over and over again, David Bowie was not your man. From 1967 to 2004, he constantly reinvented himself while producing relevant music and topping the charts. There had been few others like him.
And then he disappeared. Mr. Bowie's return was announced earlier this year with the release of the single Where Are We Now? The song's mournful nostalgia immediately caught critics' ear. His age shows in his voice, with long notes that are dropped and a sad softness in his tone. He sings of Berlin, where in the mid-1970s he lived and found enough inspiration and influences in avant-garde German pop for three groundbreaking, experimental albums. "As long as there's me/As long as there's you," Mr. Bowie croons in Where Are We Now?, without expanding on the thought.
The singer has also been a movie actor, an art collector and a sexual taboo-breaker. He has never stopped challenging his fan's expectations, a virtuous stubbornness that has now paid off with a comeback album for the ages. It's good to have him back. But then again, if art is about transformation, integrity, imagination and curiosity, David Bowie never went away. And never will.