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'The Next Day' is here for Starman

I've listened to David Bowie's "The Next Day" at least 15 times from front to back this past week, and I can say with confidence beyond the stars that we'll never truly know "David Bowie."

And David Bowie is just fine with that. As he should be.

"The Next Day" is Bowie's first studio album in a decade. This would be a cause for celebration, but many of us — Bowie fans all our lives — failed to note until recently that he had been gone.

In a way, Bowie had become the Howard Hughes of rock music. There was word of a terminal disease diagnosis a few years back, which might have explained his disappearance.

This was hearsay, of course. Bowie's secrets were safe inside his mansion hidden deep in the English countryside.

We know for sure that he did suffer a major heart attack during a show in 2004. Since that brush with death, Bowie has made only sporadic appearances at music festivals and appeared at his film director son's movie premieres. During these few appearances, Bowie mostly smiled for the cameras and offered few words about his current state of being.

I choose these words carefully. I nearly wrote, "his current life," but I have trouble imagining Bowie as a living being.

From his first work in the mid 1960s, Bowie's physical body has come off simply as a vessel inhabited by some starlost life form that careened from a galactic wormhole and landed in Brixton circa 1947.

Several music writers this past week, when reviewing the new album, point to Paul Trynka's 2011 biography "David Bowie: Starman" as the definitive peek into Bowie's life. The book is impressive in the few journalistic rubies it managed to unearth, such as how hard Bowie had to work to actually learn to play music after achieving his initial fame. The Starman had jumped ahead of himself in time, becoming a rock star before he became a musician, Trynka argues.

To my mind, Peter Doggett's "The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s" is the more interesting work. Doggett forgoes strict biography to talk about Bowie as an idea, one that is put into context amid the wreckage of the 1960s.

Again, the issue of Bowie as a human being becomes far less intriguing than the idea of him as a line of consciousness that's become unstuck in time.

Said music writers are calling "The Next Day" a return to form for Bowie. But what does that even mean? A return to what form?

To answer that, you'd have to come up with at least a working theory as to who you believe this person we call "David Bowie" might be.

Aside from Bob Dylan, I don't think there's a musician who's done a better job than Bowie of disguising himself in the guises of carefully etched personas — stretching cultures, histories and, in the Starman's, case, planets.

The first single from "The Next Day" hit the Internet like a meteor a couple months ago. "Where Are We Now?" caught the world of music journalism by surprise, making it the first time in, well, nearly since Bowie went into hiding, that the Internet had been caught off guard by something momentous.

"Where Are We Now?" was a tease, turns out. The eerie, slightly morbid sound of the single contained snippets of Bowie's life in the '70s. Lyrics hinted at debauched parties in Germany during the Thin White Duke era and a few other glints of what one might construe as autobiography.

Could the impending album then be a true work of confession from Bowie? After all, classics such as "Ziggy Stardust," "Aladdin Sane" and "Diamond Dogs" were told through Ziggy Stardust and other personas.

The music media, such as it is these days, likes to place a pod of shatterproof glass around comeback albums. The desire to see them as career-defining works is tempting when you're writing on deadline about someone whose output spans 40 years.

However, Bowie won't be placed in such a bubble. "The Next Day" drifts away from any sort of firm biography and back into the stars. The album slides into psychedelic folk weirdness, such as the rocking "I'd Rather Be High," and then into straight-up glam with "Dirty Boys."

Those hoping for the final confessions of a 66-year-old rock legend will be sorely disappointed.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.