The fascinating return of David Bowie

On Tuesday 8 January,  David Bowie returned with his first new music in a decade;  a single `Where are we now?` released instantly and an album `The Next Day` to follow in March. The comeback was sudden, almost jarring in nature. At 5am that morning, the day of his 66th birthday, the song appeared on iTunes. There was no advance publicity, no rumours in the weeks beforehand, no advertising before or indeed after the fact. The song simply appeared out of nowhere. And what a bittersweet, elegiac song it turned out to be, dripping in lyrical nostalgia and wrapped in the richness of sound that producer Tony Visconti always seems to develop with the singer.  Seemingly effortlessly (though that is always the deception with the best artists) it seems out of time yet of the now. We have been pleasantly surprised, shocked even after all the gossip about Bowie these past ten years but, really, we shouldn’t have been. Bowie has always done what we least expect of him.

He had done a fabulous job of disappearing. Whether consciously or otherwise (and with Bowie you never truly know) his withdrawal from public life was extraordinarily effective. His heart problems in 2004 may have been a catalyst, though he was up and about within days. Perhaps, along with the birth of his daughter a couple of years earlier , it did leave him thinking that he needed a change of pace after working solidly for decades.

The withdrawal though happened so as we didn’t notice. Every once in a while he appeared on stage with artists like The Arcade Fire or David Gilmour. He sometimes turned up for fashion events with his wife Iman. Then in 2006, he made his last live appearance, after which his public sightings were always either as a husband or father accompanying his wife or film making son Duncan Jones. Latterly he stopped making any official appearances at all and was occasionally photographed when spotted in New York. In his absence, rumours swirled amongst fans, especially ones that he was unwell or worse. Last year, it was said that he had abandoned the name that made him famous and was living as David Jones.  Meanwhile for the last two years, he has apparently managed to record an album without ANYONE except those involved knowing.

Naturally the speculation has already begun. There is talk of a backlog of songs recorded in the intervening years. Alternatively some are saying these songs are not `new` as such and were all recorded nine or ten years ago during the `Reality` sessions; Bowie did talk of a “new trilogy” at the time and this was subsequently thought to refer to the material that ended up on the `leaked` album `Toy`.  Also reviews of the new single have commented on its similarity to material from his last two officially released albums. As ever his motives and methods provoke discussion aplenty. Some questions have been answered- the woman whose face appears in the other puppet is apparently the video director’s wife. And Tony Visconti has said the song is atypical of the forthcoming album which of course is probably why Bowie decided to release it!
 It is remarkable in an age where anyone even mildly famous cannot do anything out of the ordinary (or even ordinary) without being papped or Tweeted or something. Someone as famous as Bowie surely cannot make a whole album in these times when we are constantly told privacy is `old fashioned`. Except of course he has done exactly that.

He has always been like this of course. In 1989 he announced he’d formed a group called Tin Machine and was abandoning his solo career. In 1973 he retired Ziggy Stardust and the music that had brought him to fame. Or there’s the astounding series of musical left turns that took him from `Diamond Dogs` to `Young Americans` to `Low`. There’s his 1983 rebirth as a commercially minded artist with `Let’s Dance`. How he arrived at his 50th birthday with a hard as nails drum n bass influenced album and that iconic Union Jack coat. And so on.  This twisting and turning, changing of images, musical styles and career approach, his obfuscation and trickery has kept him interesting, vital, and fascinating.

What is even more intriguing about his disappearance in the age of communication and social media is that he did all that long ago. In the late 90s and early 2000s Bowie was more active online and blogs than most people and certainly most stars. Just as he tried a spell being a global megastar in the 1980s, so he spent several years being accessible in a way that we now take for granted but which was still unusual for the time. Many scoffed at his constant enthusiasm for the Internet but the moment everyone joined in, he stepped back, invested in his back catalogue with the famous `Bowie Bonds` and made millions when that sort of thing still worked.

Some people seem able to gauge the temperature of their sphere of interest and know what to do and when to do it. Alex Ferguson for example knows exactly when to offload a star player even though people always say the team cannot survive without them because he already knows who to buy next. Richard Branson knows when to buy and when to sell a business as his disposal of record shops and acquisition of an airline show. David Bowie knows when to change tack, when to be daring, when to be nostalgic (look at his Glastonbury 2000 appearance) and sometimes when to do nothing. And it’s great to have him back!


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