“Throwing shadows and avoiding the industry treadmill is very David Bowie.” Well, quite. This dry comment from the press statement accompanying Where Are We Now? studiously understated the impact the song made this morning, when without any warning it became Bowie’s first new single since 2003.
The song was released without fanfare or marketing campaign as a video on Bowie’s website – and as a single download, which at the time of writing is at No.4 on the iTunes chart. An album, The Next Day, follows in March.
As well as the timing of the release, the style of the record has also wrong-footed many fans: Where Are We Now? is a relatively simple, downbeat ballad. Lent a lush piano-and-synths sound by producer and longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, it seems to look back to the classic albums the pair made with Brian Eno in the 1970s: Low, Heroes and Lodger. (Indeed, the artwork for The Next Day, or at least the image on the iTunes pre-order page, is simply the front cover of Heroes with a large white box slapped over it containing the new LP’s title, and “Heroes” struck out.)
Accompanied by slightly halting, stumbling drums, Bowie – who celebrates his 66th birthday today – namechecks several landmarks and streets in Berlin, the city that inspired his 1970s trilogy, describing himself repeatedly as “walking the dead” and sounding, understandably, much older and less certain than he ever has before on record.
The mood is one of disconnection and humility (“A man lost in time… fingers are crossed, just in case/Where are we now?”) replaced, in the song’s rather moving closing crescendo, with hope: “As long as there’s sun/As long as there’s rain/As long as there’s fire/As long as there’s me/As long as there’s you.”
The song is heartfelt and direct by the standards of a man who pioneered the practice of cutting up newspapers to create bewildering, random lyrics. Bafflement comes from the video, directed by multimedia/installation artist Tony Oursler: Bowie’s head appears as part of some sort of two-headed, four-legged furry monkey puppet, sitting mouthing the song in what seems to be an artist’s studio. The creature’s other head is younger, female and never speaks (this role is played by Oursler’s wife, Jacqueline Humphries).
Later in the video, Bowie appears as his normal self, sporting what might be another reference to his past: his blue T-shirt bears the legend Song of Norway, a 1944 operetta which was adapted as a film in 1970. Bowie’s former girlfriend, the dancer Hermione Farthingale, appeared in the movie soon after they split up. Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album contains two songs written for Farthingale – she is also thought to be the “girl with the mousy hair” mentioned in Life on Mars?.
Bowie has been so invisible for the past ten years that he’s almost not even the most famous member of his own family any more: his son Duncan Jones has won rave reviews for directing the science fiction movies Moon and Source Code. Rather sweetly, Jones tweeted this morning about his father’s new recordings: “Would be lovely if all of you could spread the word about da’s new album. First in ten years, and its a good ‘un!”
There’s an extra connection between the new Bowie song and his son’s breakthrough film. Moon opens with a blank computer screen, on which is written the words: “Where are we now?”
The last Bowie album, Reality, was released in September 2003. He has not performed live since 2006. The new release allays fears among Bowie fans that he might have died before issuing any new material post-Reality – which technically would have made the song Little Fat Man from the Ricky Gervais comedy Extras the pop legend’s last communication to the world.
But then, as the record company statement also said, Bowie “writes and performs what he wants, when he wants”. He knows when to go out. He knows when to stay in. And now he’s back.