by B.R. / The Economist
9th January 2013
FOR those rock icons unlucky enough not to die young, remaining relevant and cool can be a problem. Over the years, ageing rockers have tried many strategies to overcome this. Some become esoteric and anti-commercial, with such a sneering disdain for popularity that they are worshipped by the cognoscenti (we might call this approach “The Scott Walker”). Others simply hang around doing what they have always done and wait for the zeitgeist to swing back their way (aka, “The Weller”). Another strategy is to become stingy with your output, thus avoiding the problem of turning into a sad self-parody, and ensuring that the world waits with bated breath for every new release.
The danger with this last approach is that, while the level of interest can become frenzied, so do the expectations. In the end it can be impossible for the music to outstrip the hype. On January 8th, on the morning of his 66th birthday, David Bowie released “Where Are We Now?”, his first new record for ten years. It caught everybody by surprise. He had withdrawn almost completely from public view (he was the only British artist to turn down the chance to play at the Olympics closing ceremony). Nobody, it seems, had the slightest inkling that he had been working on new material.
Little surprise, then, that the release caused a media storm. On many newspapers it was front page news. Even Radio 4’s Today programme, a bastion of the establishment, mentioned it in its headlines. As a PR stunt, it was an act of genius. Jonathan Ross wrote in the Guardian:
In an age when we can follow our musical heroes’ every thought or whim on any number of social networks, when we can see a picture of Rihanna’s breakfast and check out what Lady Gaga thinks of Die Antwoord in 140 characters, to maintain complete radio silence for 10 years immediately puts you ahead of and above the pack, as well as creating a hunger, a desire, a need for information that we can barely tolerate.
Fortunately, the record was worth both the wait and the fuss. It has an almost unbearable pathos that makes it tough to listen to. It is a recollection of Mr Bowie’s time in Berlin in the mid 1970s, hanging around with artists such as Iggy Pop. But it has the atmosphere of someone lamenting a bygone youth, not celebrating it. The past, quite literally, a foreign country; one that can never be revisited.
It is all the more poignant because there has been much speculation about Mr Bowie’s health (he had a heart attack immediately after a gig in 2004). And one problem with becoming so sparing an artist is that commentators inevitably colour in the spaces with rumour. There is no evidence that Mr Bowie is ill. Still, such a mournful record will do little to dissuade those who believe that we are witnessing his musical swansong.
But he may surprise us. The unexpected is, after all, Mr Bowie’s modus operandi. He already has an album in the can, his 26th as a solo artist. In an incredible feat of subterfuge, it was recorded unnoticed over the past two years in New York. Tony Visconti, who produced it, as he has many of Mr Bowie’s records since “Space Oddity” in 1969, says the single is not typical; the rest is more upbeat and rocky. Mr Bowie seems destined to be that most elusive type of rock icon: one who can continue to command the world’s attention, even as he begins to draw his pension.