So there’s a new David Bowie song and I still can’t quite believe it. It’s DAVID FRICKIN’ BOWIE, undoubtedly one of the greatest artists in popular music history. It’s as if The Beatles reformed without fanfare in 1980. So convinced was I of Bowie’s retirement that if I hadn’t read a few tweets prior to seeing him trending, I would have immediately assumed that he’d died. Instead I assumed that the news of a new record was some post-modern joke that I was missing. When I realised that it was the real deal, I shook with nervous excitement and delayed my journey to work until I could download the song and upload it to my iPod.
The last time Bowie released a new record I was 23 and still living in Glasgow. Back then, of course, a new Bowie record was nothing to get worked up about given that they were fairly frequent affairs. Indeed, ‘Heathen’ had been released only the year before and despite proving to be something of a critical and commercial success, it was a modest ‘comeback’ which saw the lead single from ‘Reality’ limp into the UK chart at number 38. Ever the pioneer, Bowie launched ‘Reality’ with what was billed as “the world’s first live and interactive music event” – a gig and q & a session broadcast to cinemas around the planet. I couldn’t find anyone to attend with me, so I found myself sitting alone in an almost-empty Odeon cinema in Glasgow on a Monday evening. I absolutely loved it and stuck the ticket to a noticeboard in my bedroom until I saw Bowie live (in person!) on 28th November that year. That gig remains one of my all-time favourites, from the indescribable thrill of Bowie’s entrance and opening with ‘Rebel Rebel’ through the mass sing-a-longs which greeted almost every song to the pre-encore finale of ‘“Heroes”’. I can still vividly remember feeling crazily euphoric and thinking ‘Fuck, I’m watching David Bowie perform ‘“Heroes”’!’ It’s an evening I will never forget.
Bowie’s heart surgery in 2004 curtailed that tour and, it slowly dawned, his career. 2005 brought a Fashion Rocks performance with Arcade Fire while 2006 saw what is to date his final live performance, a Black Ball charity set which saw him duetting with Alicia Keys. 2008 found him providing backing vocals on Scarlett Johansson’s odd and swiftly forgotten album of Tom Waits covers. And that was that. Almost no public appearances or interviews and a smattering of statements led most to the conclusion that it was all over. It also brought mutterings of ill health, with a different ailment attributed to Bowie depending on who you asked. I resigned myself to Bowie’s inactivity – it almost seemed churlish to demand more from the man who had already given me (and the world) so, so much. I found it heartening to witness his legend growing with the years, climaxing (as it turns out) in his heavy association with last year’s Olympics. Only two weeks ago I found myself bawling at the use of ‘“Heroes”’ in the emotional climax of the film adaptation of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, recalling the first time I heard Bowie and the many, many moments of my life which his music has sound-tracked.
Then, today. Blind-sided, I was almost fearful to listen to ‘Where Are We Now?’ for the first time. So much seemed to ride on it, so many emotions and memories. Yet here was a moment I never thought I would ever experience again and I wanted to dive into it. I began to shake again as I pressed ‘play’, feeling a strange blend of unfamiliarity and affection like I was stumbling around in the dark inside the bedroom I grew up in. Then Bowie began to sing, his voice clearly time-worn and even frail but still immediately recognisable. That was all it took. I fell in love with him for the millionth time.
I’ve written before about how some make great noises regarding objectivity and pop music, dismissing opinions which they think are hopelessly compromised by love for an artist. As I said then, I feel sorry that these people do not, cannot understand the unique relationship you have with artists who are woven into the fabric of your soul, whose voices are as familiar to you as your own. This isn’t to say that you lose your head and give them a free pass on all that they do but it certainly means that you want them to do well. Today, Bowie did well. ‘Where Are We Now?’ is an almost-perfect ‘comeback’, finding his melodic prowess undimmed while being shot through with an elegiac recognition of his advancing years – a theme which ran through ‘Heathen’ and ‘Reality’ but which finds a new power here, ten years on. The title almost seems like a question directed to the many who have loved and still love him, an interpretation strengthened by the song’s pre-occupation with his famous ‘Berlin Years’ (further developed in the video) and the artwork’s referencing of both ‘Young Americans’ and “Heroes”. “Where are we now? The moment you know, you know, you know.” And I did. Tears welled up as I listened and the climactic line, “As long as there’s me, as long as there’s you” felt like a valedictory affirmation.
It was exhilarating to see Bowie displace Will.I.Am and Britney Spears on the iTunes chart after only a few hours. Firstly because it felt that we were witnessing an outpouring of love which tends to only come once an artist has gone and it’s too late for them to fully appreciate how much they meant to people. Secondly, because it felt right that David Bowie should displace a song which so perfectly encapsulates all that is most wretched about the worst modern pop music. Britney Spears is (or has at least become) a vacuum, an indistinct shell devoid of purpose and meaning. Her voice, her talent, her personality – all are irrelevant, subsumed entirely by her celebrity. That is her raison d’etre as a pop star. Any sense of craft, of having something to say, of music-as-art-form is entirely absent. Instead the music serves as a (hopefully) catchy vehicle for the product. ‘Scream & Shout’ is an uninspired, unimaginative and uninterested piece of crap and is surely close to the nadir of its particular brand of pop – a brand which unfortunately has come to dominate the charts. It seems fitting, then, that it be replaced by the return of an artist who has more than any other over the past 50 years shown that pop music can matter, move us and mean something. Apparently Bowie’s song will be ineligible for the singles chart due to a pre-order album deal – no matter. Its mere presence highlights the desiccated heart at the core of the Britney Spears pop era.
Suffice to say, I cannot wait for the album. Welcome back Bowie – I’m glad I’ve had the chance to be surprised by you, and to love you, at least one more time.