LONDON David Bowie's first album of new music in a decade sees the influential musician back to his best, British critics said in reviews rushed out on Tuesday, two weeks before its release.
"The Next Day", which hits stores in Britain on March 11 and a day later in the United States, could even be the "greatest comeback in rock'n'roll history", according to The Independent's Andy Gill.
As well as a series of glowing reviews, this week also saw the launch of the second single from the 14-track album called "The Stars (Are out Tonight)", accompanied by a surreal video starring the Starman himself and Tilda Swinton as his partner.
In it the middle-aged couple's daily routine is upset by the arrival of a group of mysterious, androgynous young things next door who enter their dreams and lives and reawaken old desires and fears.
"They burn you with their radiant smiles/Trap you with their beautiful eyes" he sings in a reflection on fame and celebrity.
As befits an "event" album with so much hype surrounding it, several newspapers gave The Next Day a track-by-track analysis, and the first batch of reviews ranged from four to five stars.
"David Bowie's The Next Day may be the greatest comeback album ever," said Gill in his five-star assessment.
"It's certainly rare to hear a comeback effort that not only reflects an artist's own best work, but stands alongside it in terms of quality," he added.
Neil McCormick of the Telegraph also gave the record top marks, calling it "an ... emotionally charged, musically jagged, electric bolt through his own mythos and the mixed-up, celebrity-obsessed, war-torn world of the 21st century."
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Alexis Petridis, writing in the Guardian, argued that, while containing references to Bowie's past work, it largely avoided becoming a sonic memoir of a stellar musical career.
And he said that the secrecy surrounding the making of the album, and genuine media surprise when it was announced on Bowie's 66th birthday last month, risked overshadowing the quality of the music itself.
"That doesn't seem a fair fate for an album that's thought-provoking, strange and filled with great songs," he said. "Listening to it makes you hope it's not a one-off, that his return continues apace."
Songs singled out by critics included "Valentine's Day", couched, according to Gill, "in one of the album's most engaging pop arrangements", and "Dancing Out In Space", described by Will Hodgkinson of The Times as a "nightclub smash".
"You Feel So Lonely You Could Die", the penultimate track, provides the climax which McCormick calls "fantastic, a lush companion piece to Ziggy's Rock'n'roll Suicide that drips vitriol in place of compassion."
Now that the album is complete, the question on many fans' lips is whether Bowie will return to the stage to perform live.
The singer himself has dodged the limelight altogether since the comeback, but Tony Visconti, the producer on the album, and guitarist Gerry Leonard have been among those filling in the information gaps in recent weeks.
"I would say that it's 50-50," Slick told Rolling Stone magazine recently of the chances of a tour, far better odds than most Bowie followers would be willing to offer.
The glam-rock star, born David Jones in south London in 1947, shot to fame with "Space Oddity" in 1969, and later with his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, before establishing himself as a chart-topping force in the early 1980s.
His long absence from the music scene led to speculation he had retired, with British newspapers reporting as recently as October that he had disappeared from the limelight for good.
Bowie's last album of new material was "Reality", released a decade ago, and he underwent emergency heart surgery while on tour in 2004. His last stage performance was as a guest at a charity concert in New York in 2006. (Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)