When singers stage a triumphant, surprise comeback, in future they will be said to have “done a David Bowie.”
His album “The Next Day,” streaming now on iTunes and made over three years, is a textbook example of rock recovery. The template: record in secrecy, refuse interviews, reference your career highlights, name check celebrities from Brigitte Bardot to Brad Pitt. Don’t forget a little anger. Oh, and a few good songs would help.
Bowie had been written off after a decade of ill health and reclusive retirement. The chorus of the rattling title track runs “here I am, not quite dying, my body left to rot on a hollow tree.”
He is energized, revving up the guitars to a disco beat on “Dancing Out in Space.” “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” sounds like the angry union of early Kinks with Bowie’s own “Rebel Rebel.” Most tracks are way more upbeat than the dreamy 66th-birthday single “Where Are We Now?” with its melancholy Berlin memories.
The German capital is everywhere, even with the sleeve’s overprint of “Heroes,” made in the city in 1977. The blank image probably means something profound, even if it took just a minute to design and isn’t the most effective piece of minimalism.
The video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” portrays Bowie as a cardigan-wearing couch potato. Tilda Swinton plays his wife. The odd couple make for an odder film, just as you would expect from Bowie.
The two suburbanites ogle the celebrities in magazines and television shows until their lives and dreams are taken over. Bowie sings enviously of “Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad” watching from behind shades and tinted windows: “We will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever.”
This hour of new music bears comparison with another Berlin collection, “Lodger,” and has echoes of Bowie’s later works “Heathen” and “Reality.” It’s not up there with “Station to Station” or “Ziggy Stardust”: then again those are two of the best rock LPs of the 1970s, if not of all time. Rating: ****.
A “new album” by Jimi Hendrix sounds a little farfetched given that he died in 1970 and there have been more than 50 records of posthumous material.
“People, Hell and Angels” isn’t quite all its promises: The recordings featured haven’t been heard, sure, though other takes of some of them have. The CD covers much the same territory as “Crash Landing” and “First Rays of the New Rising Sun.”
Hendrix, working outside the original Experience group, was finding his feet with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles who went on into the Band of Gypsys. Their interplay is obvious from the opener “Earth Blues,” a little scrappy as much of the material is.
“Somewhere” has Stephen Stills on bass and some exceptional guitar work. The workout would have fitted on “Electric Ladyland” and got to No. 1 in the Billboard’s Hot Singles Sales last month, 45 years after it was recorded. Rating: ***.
Flash forward to now, and also out this week is “Sing to the Moon,” a remarkably confident debut by U.K. singer Laura Mvula. Her retro-soul stylings are more Amy Winehouse or Adele than Jessie Ware. I’ll return to her soon: a name to watch. Rating: ****.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Exceptional **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
Bowie’s album is streaming now on iTunes. It is released by Columbia/ Iso Records on March 12 in the U.S., priced about $10 or $12 for a deluxe edition. The Hendrix CD comes out from Sony Legacy tomorrow priced $10. Mvula is on RCA Victor. Download prices vary across services.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, John Mariani on wine, Lance Esplund on art and Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater.