Nobody really expected anything from David Bowie at this point, let alone his best album in 30 years. After virtually disappearing following the release and aborted tour in support of 2003’s underwhelming ‘Reality,’ even the rock ‘n’ roll changeling’s biggest fans figured he was finished. He was rarely seen in public, and there certainly were no rumors swirling about a new record or anything like that.

So when Bowie announced on his 66th birthday that his 24th album, ‘The Next Day,’ was all ready to go, it was both surprising and thrilling. How does someone like Bowie record an entire album without anyone knowing about it in an era where photos of celebrity genitals are washed down with our morning coffee? Short answer: He’s David Bowie. And he stages his big comeback on ‘The Next Day’ by slipping in and out of the 14 songs like he can’t decide if he liked his Berlin Trilogy or ‘Scary Monsters’ periods better.

‘The Next Day’ isn’t perfect. It’s a little too long, and some of the songs lack direction and focus. But it’s Bowie’s best album since ‘Let’s Dance,’ when he transformed himself into a dapper white soul singer and it became the bestselling record of his career. There’s no clear-cut persona adapted on ‘The Next Day,’ unless "David Bowie" counts. He basically looks back on his most creative years, when he and producer Tony Visconti constructed a series of groundbreaking electronic albums in the late-‘70s, and filters the same formula here, with Visconti once again behind the boards.

The opening title track kicks like something from ‘Scary Monsters,’ with squawking guitar feedback and marching-machines drums signaling an apocalypse on the horizon. “Here I am, not quite died,” Bowie sings, part defiant, part matter-of-fact. It’s a swaggering comeback move that continues throughout ‘The Next Day’’s best songs. He even gets all space-alien freaky (again) on ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight),’ a creditable companion to his other freaky space-alien songs.

After years of inflating and then sidestepping his legend, Bowie embraces it on ‘The Next Day,’ which sounds like a David Bowie album. He croons on ‘Where Are We Now?’, swoons on ‘Heat’ and balls-out rocks on ‘(You Will) Set the World on Fire.’ In almost anyone else’s hands, it would all come off as cynically calculated. But Bowie makes it sound perfectly natural. Nobody does him better.



More From Ultimate Classic Rock