On January 8, 2013, with no announcement, let alone any fanfare, David Bowie, who had not released any new music for a decade and was that day celebrating his 66th birthday, released a song and an accompanying video.
It was the prelude to a new album a few months later, The Next Day, which re-established Bowie at the centre of contemporary culture, but at the time of the song’s release it was not clear what that album might sound like, what Bowie would do to support it (A tour? Appearances? Nothing?), what was his state of mind and body.
Three years later there would be another album, again released on his birthday. But this time followed two days later by his death.
Not that any of that was known, and not that any of that stopped us responding to Where Are We Now?: it stood alone, though not without a past, as Wind Back Wednesday recollects.
Where Are We Now? (Sony)
HE LIVES, HE SINGS, and he’s recording again. After a career of them it perhaps shouldn’t be a shock that halfway through his seventh decade David Bowie is full of surprises once again, releasing his first new recording in a decade on his 66th birthday this week, a song called Where Are We Now? And what’s more, he’s offering not just a single but the promise of an album of new material in March called The Next Day.
If he had avoided so far the false-death-by-Twitter fate of many celebrities and artists, it’s fair to say that Bowie was assumed to have retired. Ill health (a heart attack in 2004), no tours since the 2004 shows were cancelled, no album since 2003, the last of his public appearances being in 2007 and the fact that his second child, Alexandria, was born in 2000 all suggested a veil being drawn across a career which began in the Mod years of the mid-'60s.
But here is Where Are We Now?, a bruised, sadly beautiful, contemplative song which does that very rare Bowie thing of looking back. In this case it’s back to Berlin in the late 1970s when, physically and emotionally spent after a decade of constant reinvention, mind-warping fame and more cocaine than is ever healthy - a “man lost in time” to quote from the new song – he regained sanity, health and his musical inspiration “on Nurnberger Strasse”.
In the song, Bowie sounds older, certainly, maybe even more fragile. It’s reflective and overlaid with a kind of sadness that’s not exactly a farewell but certainly leaves room for us to think that The Next Day may be his last recorded work. “As long as there’s sun, as long as there’s rain ... as long as there’s me, as long as there’s you”
The filmclip, where Bowie’s lived in, weary face (aptly described by one online wit as looking like the nearly-king Edward, Duke Of Windsor) is projected onto the body of a furry toy has scattered mementos and, projected behind him, grainy footage of Berlin decades ago and new almost home video shots. It’s odd, slightly disturbing but compelling, in typical Bowie fashion, and as it nears its end we see him in full, leaning against a wall looking healthy, maybe determined but not in any way needy.
Why does this matter? After all he hasn’t had a hit in decades and this song, while it may have had a single (and probably last) play on youth network triple j this morning, isn’t going to challenge Pink or Kanye West for attention.
It matters because like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Bowie has not only earned the right to be listened to after a lifetime of creative reward but he still offers something fresh and of his time – not our time, but his – in a way which speaks volumes.