David Bowie: 25 albums and still breaking boundaries

He hasn’t performed live for almost a decade, but as he prepares to release his 25th studio album, Blackstar, David Bowie remains as relevant as ever.

Gareth Rees January 7, 2016

Update: David Bowie passed away on January 10, 2016, after an 18-month long battle with cancer. 

David Bowie’s art has always been as much a pleasure for the eyes as it has the ears, so it is fitting that the artist’s surprise comeback in 2013 – his first album in a decade – was defined by an image.

The cover of The Next Day would be indistinguishable from that of one of his most celebrated albums, 1970’s Heroes. Only this time there was a black line through the original title and a white square obscuring most of the iconic image of Berlin-era Bowie taken by Japanese photographer Masayoshi Sukita, who worked with Bowie for more than 40 years.

“The Heroes cover obscured by the white square is about the spirit of great pop or rock music, which is ‘of the moment’, forgetting or obliterating the past,” according to Jonathan Barnbrook, the man responsible for the striking design.

Bowie was back, but Barnbrook’s cover apparently signalled a change. Prior to the long hiatus following emergency heart surgery that led to the cancellation of his A Reality Tour in 2004, there had been a Bowie album every few years since 1967’s self-titled debut. He had quite a past to obliterate.

bowie heroes the next day.jpg The album covers for Heroes (1977) and The Next Day (2013).

Most artists who have survived almost five decades in the music industry have experimented with different styles of music, but Bowie has always been more than just a writer and singer of songs; he is a performer in the truest sense of the word – an artist wedded to both visual spectacle and musical innovation.

Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke: these vivid alter egos still live in the minds of all Bowie fans – perhaps even more so than the music – even if Bowie killed them off long ago. But with that white square, he laid their ghosts to rest for good. Or did he?

In typical Bowie fashion, the message wasn’t clear; the first single from The Next Day, the melancholy Where Are We Now?, looked back to his Berlin days, and the album’s sound, produced by long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, though undeniably fresh, is imbued with traces of Bowie’s past work. Nevertheless, music critic Andy Gill’s assertion that The Next Day “may be the greatest comeback album ever” was far from an exaggeration.

There was no tour for The Next Day. Instead of live gigs, imaginative music videos for singles Where Are We Now? and The Stars (Are Out Tonight) starring Tilda Swinton provided the visual sustenance. Recent news reports that Bowie would never tour again came as no surprise. Just two weeks later it was announced that Blackstar, the follow-up to The Next Day, would be released on January 8, 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday.

Jazz, Kraftwerk and even Gregorian chants have been rumoured, so who knows what to expect? Whatever it is, a David Bowie album is perhaps more eagerly anticipated than that of any other artist still making music, and for good reason.

We might never see Bowie perform live again, but there is still plenty of life, alien or otherwise, left in an artist who, like all the great musical innovators, has only ever been interested in moving forward.