by Alexis Petridis / Guardian
8th January 2013
A couple of months ago, BBC4 repeated David Bowie‘s Top of the Pops performance of Heroes from October 1977. It’s an appearance understandably eclipsed in history by his performance of Starman five years before, where he camply slung his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder and pointed directly down the camera lens as he sang “I had to phone someone, so I picked on you”, as if issuing a personal invitation to every gay kid and teenage misfit who was watching. This time around, he just stood there and sang, but the appearance is still remarkable, simply for the fact that he turned up at all. It was the dawn of the video era, which meant that the really big stars – Elton John or Rod Stewart – no longer needed to schlep along to the BBC to mime when they had a new single out. But there he was, the defining artist of the era, mucking in alongside Smokie and Tina Charles. Perhaps he thought that Heroes needed an extra push: with its edge-of-hysteria vocal, lyrics in German and screaming guitar by Robert Fripp, it didn’t sound much like anything else in the charts. From the moment he told Melody Maker’s Michael Watts he was gay – one of the great audacious moves in rock history from a man whose previous two albums had failed to even make the charts – Bowie has always shown a brilliant understanding of how to promote records.
Judging by its page on iTunes, the cover of his 24th album The Next Day is the same as that of Heroes, with a large grey square covering most of the iconic photo of Bowie in a pose inspired by the paintings of Erich Heckel. The lyrics of his first single in a decade, Where Are We Now?, similarly hark back to the era and the city in which Heroes was made, depicting him “walking the dead”, wandering around a variety of Berlin streets, musing on the passing of time and the way inspiration strikes without warning: “as long as there’s fire … the moment you know, you know.” The video seems to be filmed in his old Berlin apartment, which has apparently been turned into an artist’s studio. Even with his head stuck on top of the body of a soft toy, he looks in remarkably good nick for someone who was so widely rumoured to be terminally ill a few years back that the Flaming Lips wrote a song about it, called Is David Bowie Dying?: indeed, he looks in remarkably good nick for a man in his late 60 who spent most his life smoking three packs of Marlboro a day.
On the evidence of Where Are We Now?, the music on The Next Day has almost nothing in common with the stuff he and its producer Tony Visconti recorded 36 years ago. It’s a beautiful, elegiac ballad, Bowie’s voice sounds gorgeously fragile – not the fragility of someone nearing 70 who’s lost their vocal power to the ravages of age, but the fragility of someone who wants to communicate an aching wistfulness. No one who hears it is going to be baffled or horrified or struck by the thrilling sense that pop music has been pushed into new, uncharted regions. Perhaps Bowie’s finished with that kind of thing, having done more of it between 1970 and 1980 than almost any other artist, save the Beatles.
Where Are We Now? wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2002’s Heathen or 2003’s Reality. Indeed, if it had been the lead single off Bowie’s new album in 2004, it would have passed virtually without comment. The reason it’s created such a fuss is partly because most people thought Bowie’s retirement looked pretty final. He never said as much, but it felt right: while his peers pragmatically chose to work the public’s thirst for nostalgia, playing the big hits on high-grossing tours and tacitly acknowledging that their best work was behind them, Bowie – an artist who’d never evinced much interest in looking back – slipped into a dignified silence. Like the guy singing Heroes on Top of the Pops, it seems remarkable that he turned up at all.
Of course, the main reason it’s created such a fuss is simply because no one knew. It’s incredible that, in an era of gossip websites and messageboard rumours, one of the biggest stars in the world, presumed retired, can spend two years making a new album without the merest whisper of it reaching the public. But somehow he did it. The first speculation that something was afoot came literally hours before the single appeared: no blurry cameraphone shots of him leaving a recording studio, no MP3s of demos leaked on to filesharing sites, no slip-up by someone involved in its making on Twitter. It’s the opposite of how you’re expected to do things: at the very least, a major artist releasing a new album is supposed to drop hints, create an online buzz of expectation, stoke the rumour mill, ensure the biggest audience possible is primed and waiting. Bowie has done none of that: whatever The Next Day sounds like, he’s turned it into the biggest release of 2013 by the simple expedient of doing absolutely nothing other than make an album. Furthermore, he’s managed to maintain the myth and mystique that was always central to his stardom and his art in a world where rock and pop music has almost no myth or mystique left, an age of 360-degree connectivity, where pop stars are supposed to be perpetually available to their fans via social networking. But as we’ve already established, David Bowie has always shown a brilliant understanding of how to promote records.