Records are rated on a scale of one (awful) to four (classic) stars:
DAVID BOWIE 'The Next Day' (Iso/Columbia)
3 1/2 stars = Very good
For more than three decades, David Bowie pulled off the rare feat of being innovative and reliable. He debuted in 1967 and maintained a vigorous album-a-year pace (or more) throughout the '70s, shedding a new skin at every turn. Since then, he's never gone more than six years between releases, so there was every reason to believe, following 2003's "Reality" and his 2004 heart attack, that the glam-rock chameleon was lost to us.
His January surprise was a new single on his 66th birthday, a warped ballad, "Where Are We Now," that sounded like it was recorded in the ICU.
Now -- surprise! -- the 14-track album leaps out of the box with a title track that's a hard, angular rocker a la "Scary Monsters." "Here I am, not quite dying!" he sings, as if we didn't already know from the urgency of his voice -- one that's still strong, beautiful and harrowing.
"The Next Day" -- secretly recorded over two years with legendary producer Tony Visconti and a cast of familiar Bowie characters like guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard, bassists Tony Levin and Gail Ann Dorsey and drummers Sterling Campbell and Zachary Alford -- evokes past Bowie glories without feeling stale, the right cocktail for a rock icon.
The album bristles with life and tension, his typically abstract lyrics dripping with violence and their share of mortal dread. There's a Ziggy-sounding sketch of a school shooter ("Valentine's Day"), a trippy Beatlesque graveyard lament ("I'd Rather Be High"), propulsive, naked view of celebrity ("The Stars Are out Tonight"), hard-rock memoir of the '60s East Village ("(You Will Set) The World on Fire") and, as a change-up, a "Modern Love"-like romp ("Dancing out in Space").
Having secured a successful sonic comeback, he rides out the album with a psychedelic ballad, "Heat," that has him singing, "And I tell myself/I don't know who I am." It's him in character, but they are fitting words for Bowie, who spent most of his career pushing sounds and styles forward. He might not be doing that with the ambiguously titled "The Next Day," but as it is, this is like a gift that fell to Earth.
-- Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette
ALSO NEW THIS WEEK:
Devendra Banhart, "Mala": "Mala" is the kind of album where there are some very good individual songs, although you get the feeling they might have been better served on a compilation record or soundtrack, buffered by filler and failed experiments. If there's one thing "Mala" doesn't do, it's cohere. "Mala" proves that Banhart is searching for his mojo, the thing that made him so endearing to critics and fans in the first place. I can tell you this much: simply recording on a pawnshop recorder is not enough, and is not going to bring the magic back. You have to have the songs, of which "Mala" only has a handful. (Zachary Houle)
Biffy Clyro, "Opposites": Double albums -- in the majority of cases -- are a risky affair usually resigned to prog-rock magicians. When bands under the mainstream spotlight attempt such a move, it tends to result in a record full of filler with a spineless producer afraid to deflate a few egos by telling the pretentious musicians to reel it. This is not strictly the case here, as Biffy Clyro have managed to avoid most of the pitfalls of such bloated expanse, even though "Opposites'" running time is lengthy. Fans will dive headlong into these 20 new songs, but that's not to say that this record isn't without its flaws. (Dean Brown)
Stereophonics, "Graffiti on the Train": Stereophonics has never been a smiles and sunshine kind of band, but neither has their material been as thoroughly dark as that found on "Graffiti on the Train." Themes of separation, last chances, regret, nostalgia and fleeting impermanence define this record. It should be noted that this is Stereophonics' first album since the 2010 death of founding drummer Stuart Cable, and it's tempting to ascribe the melancholia that pervades the work to his passing. As the bitterest of silver linings, however, Cable's death seems to have reinvigorated the band's artistry, with frontman Kelly Jones writing his best songs since 2005's "Language. Sex. Violence. Other?" (Cole Waterman)
Other notable releases
Eric Clapton, "Old Sock": The singer-guitarist reaches back for mostly covers, such as "All of Me" and "Goodnight Irene," with a guest list that includes Paul McCartney, J.J. Cale, Chaka Khan and Steve Winwood.
Bon Jovi, "What About Now": Twelfth album features the Jersey band doing formula rockers with uplifting messages.