Early in his career, David Bowie realized that reinvention came naturally to him, and soon the spirit of change became his prime persona. Through all of his alternate guises space alien, drugged-out cartoon, machine-obsessed private detective, guy who just discovered the Pixies he's maintained a spectacularly consistent inconsistency, and while not all of it has worked, at least we always knew that another character was coming right behind.
For the past decade, however, his chief guise has been Invisible Man. Following turn-of-the-century releases Heathen and Reality (which reunited him with classic-era producer Tony Visconti), he suddenly disappeared, cutting a tour short, ignoring music, and making only occasional appearances amid rumors of failing health so persistent that the Flaming Lips recorded a song called ''Is David Bowie Dying?'' In the meantime, pop stars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé got rich crafting their own evil twins, and countless bands co-opted Bowie's fashionable bohemian androgyny.
Now he's returned to look back at a lifetime of looking forward. The Next Day, his 26th album, finds Bowie very much alive and vacillating between future-obsessed restlessness and outright nostalgia. Day takes the idea of revisiting past experiments and exposes them to gamma radiation, speeding up the evolutionary process across 14 tracks. And like a judicious parent, he treats his most high-profile projects equally, paying homage to all their quirks and foibles: The album-opening title track sounds like a return to Station to Station, single ''Where Are We Now?'' wallows in Low-era melancholy, and ''Boss of Me'' is a gospel-glam strut in the spirit of Aladdin Sane's ''Watch That Man.'' This time, Visconti drops in a bevy of sonic retrospective winks, making it easy to spot references and also to reedit: If you dig the end-of-the-world dirges from Lodger, you'll adore ''You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,'' but if you never got over Space Oddity's psychedelic folk, you can jettison all but ''I'd Rather Be High'' from iTunes.
A few tracks lack clear antecedents (see: the Jack White-aping ''You Will Set the World on Fire''), and some simply lack cohesion, or at least enough melody to anchor them. But Day is also an excellent reminder that Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and the lunatic who sang Christmas songs with Bing Crosby have been coexisting in the same brain for decades. Now that all of his alter egos have settled down, he can finally get on with the business of being David Bowie auteur, bon vivant, and eternally, rock's most gorgeous space alien. B
''Love is Lost'' A hooky, paranoid rocker
''Valentine's Day'' A fuzzy glam redux