January 8th will always be significant on the calendar of any David Bowie fanatic, but even the most hopeful of follower would have been unable to predict quite how special the start of the second week into 2013 would become. After almost a decade in the wilderness, the great man celebrated his 66th birthday with news of not only a new single, but a forthcoming album, The Next Day, due out in March.
‘Where Are We Now?’, the new single, is a mellow, simmering ballad. The song is poignant and political, building up to an understated crescendo. If it finds itself at the top of the charts by the end of the week, it will have done so not because it grabs your attention and has you humming the melody all day long. ‘Gangnam Style’ this certainly is not. But it is a grower. The hysteria associated with Bowie means he’ll be talked about for months to come, but ‘Where Are We Now?’ ensures that, musically, he returns with a polite ripple rather than a bang.
Accompanying it is a haunting video, which has a dated feel to it. The typography is tired and worn, whilst the somebre footage is out of step with the typical colour and clarity of the high definition generation. For someone whose career has been defined by progression and forward-thinking, the new Bowie is clearly in reflective mode. He name-drops many sights of Berlin, such as Potzdamer Platz and Nurnberger Strasse, which would have become familiar when he lived there in the late 1970s; a period of rejuvenation for the Thin White Duke, who used the change of scenery as a way to move on from the drug-fuelled soul and funk of the previous years.
For all his flamboyance, David Bowie has historically had a tight grip over both the musical and artistic process. Often referred to as a “chameleon” of popular music, he spearheaded the glam rock movement with alter ego Ziggy Stardust, before embracing soul and funk on Young Americans (1975) and experimenting in the late 1970s with the ‘Berlin trilogy’ of Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977) and Lodger (1979). He reached a commercial peak with the dance-rock of Let’s Dance (1983), before embracing electronic influences in the 1990s with the industrial drum and bass of Earthling (1997). The conventional composition of ‘Where Are We Now?’ suggests a continuation of the alternative rock of recent releases Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003), although yesterday’s admission by Tony Visconti, the producer of The Next Day, that the output will be categorically a “rock” records implies that the new single might not be entirely reflective of the album as a whole.
The list of changes in Bowie’s musical direction are almost never-ending, but he transcends generations as well as genres. His influence is omnipresent. No doubt he has universal appeal: a hero to those who grew up listening to his music in the 1970s and 1980s, but also an icon still enticing to today’s generation. Twenty-four albums in, the Bowie brand remains ‘cool’.
In an age of social media and constant news coverage, that this surprise twenty-fifth was kept secret is remarkable. Up until now, snapshots of Bowie in New York seemingly enjoying retirement were about as much as we had to cling on to. Fears of ill health kicked the idea of a comeback very much into the long grass. Now, it appears, we had no reason to worry.
There will be those who question the need for a Bowie resurrection – the album will neatly coincide with the eagerly anticipated ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition at the V&A – but it speaks volumes that this comeback has been mounted not on a Greatest Hits release or a farewell tour, but on the news of new material; a whopping 17 tracks to be precise. Bowie is back not because he has something to sell, but because he has something to say.
As The Next Day approaches, the question on everyone’s minds will be whether or not David Bowie will return to the stage once more. Glastonbury 2013? A worldwide tour? A one-off gig to open London’s newly available Olympic Stadium? Such suggestions previously regarded as naïve, at best wishful thinking, have become rather more credible. For now, let’s take comfort in the knowledge that David Bowie is well and truly back in the game.