Here’s how a classic-rock comeback is supposed to work: You let word of your band’s reunion leak to Rolling Stone, drum up fan interest via your Facebook and Twitter feeds, grant interviews to everyone under the sun, let iTunes stream your new album, and spend the next two years on tour.
Unless you’re David Bowie, that is. Then you quietly release The Next Day, your first new album in 10 years, without fanfare. You surprise everyone, since no one even knew you were recording new tracks. (Because you made the session musicians sign non-disclosure agreements.) Aside from a couple of music videos, you do no publicity. No interviews, no touring. You don’t even put your likeness on the album cover, hiding your face behind a white square.
This is not how you make a comeback album; it’s how you publish a Thomas Pynchon novel. Nonetheless, the strategy seems to be paying off. Released on March 12, The Next Day is riding a wave of unanimously glowing reviews, with many critics calling the album Bowie’s best collection of songs since his heyday in the 1970s and early ’80s.
Bowie’s latest incarnation as the Invisible Man is one that few without his reputation for mystery and mutability could pull off. That refusal to reveal himself extends to the album’s tracks, which contain no grand statements (a la “Double Fantasy” or “Time Out of Mind,” respective comebacks by John Lennon and Bob Dylan) on his absence or on aging gracefully (he’s 66).
Bowie’s decade away seems like a lifetime in pop terms, but it’s dwarfed by other re-emerging vintage rock acts. The Cars had been apart for 23 years before hitting the top 10 in 2011 with “Move Like This.” My Bloody Valentine released the enormously influential “Loveless” in 1991 and then nothing for 22 years, until last month’s acclaimed “m b v.” In December, the surviving members of Nirvana reunited for the first time in 18 years, with the late Kurt Cobain replaced by a rock icon from a previous generation, Paul McCartney. (McCartney and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl are touring this spring, along with Stevie Nicks, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, and other strange-bedfellow rock vets as the Sound City Players.)
Still, Bowie remains unique in his refusal to exploit the moment by being ubiquitous. In today’s image-conscious pop landscape (of which he was an architect), that might be the most avant-garde artistic statement of all: letting the work speak for itself.