Old Blue Eye is back.
There aren’t many genuinely surprising "events" left in modern culture, but music lovers and David Bowie fans woke up this morning to find their Christmases had come late this year.
Not only had Bowie broken his ten year silence and released a single – overnight, on www.davidbowie.com, to celebrate his 66th birthday – ‘Where Are We Now?’ is the pre-cursor to an entire album, The Next Day, in March.
Most importantly, and perhaps shockingly of all, ‘Where Are We Now?’ is stunning, arguably the best David Bowie track since 1980 and ‘Ashes To Ashes’. (Yeah I said it.)
Looking back at his life in Berlin – a time that famously inspired Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – ‘Where Are We Now?’ is produced by long-term Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti and has a fragile poignancy Bowie tried but struggled to capture on his last three albums – Reality (2003), Heathen (2002) or Hours... (1999) all of which had their moments and are, actually, under-rated.
Earthling, Outside, and Tonight were largely awful while Never Let Me Down and Black Tie White Noise were clumpy, clumsy affairs. Which takes us all the back to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and Ashes To Ashes to find Bowie in his prime.
Anyone wondering why Bowie hasn’t released anything for so long just needs to hear ‘Where Are We Now?’. It takes ten years to find a melody as lovely as this one.
The chorus though is the point where Bowie’s return almost ceases to be such good news for Bowie fans – for where the sighs and swoons turn into sobs.
He’s been ill of course, virtually in hiding in New York, and ‘Where Are We Now?’ is almost unbearably mournful, frail, a song destined to become a “favourite” at funerals: the post-modernists’ ‘Angels’.
It starts deceptively with a sleepy pace and sumptuous strings luring you in to a song that has echoes of ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Don’t Let Me Down & Down’, and ‘Everyone Says Hi’.
Nostalgic recollections of walking and clubbing in Berlin (“had to get the train from Potzdamer Platz/you never knew that, that I could do that” - a line that could refer to his fans, his fame, his lover or the ravages of his drug addiction) are cut short by the chorus.
“Where are we now, where we now ?/The moment you know, you know, you know ?” Bowie sings in the video, seemingly shot in his flat or studio. His face is stretched, strained face and bizarrely mounted on a stuffed toy, attached to someone who looks distinctly like Björk – like a trapped, twisted figure from Samuel Beckett.
If ever there was a song about a man’s own mortality, a man writing his memorial, about the best times of his life, ‘Where Are We Now?’ is it. It unmistakably has the sound - and look - of a man contemplating how many more records he will ever make.
It’s about a man clinging on to the last basics of his life. “As long as there’s sun / As long as there’s sun / As long as there’s rain /As long as there’s rain / As long as there’s fire / As long as there’s fire / As long as there’s me /As long as there’s you.”
‘Where Are We Now?’ reminds us why Bowie was the greatest pop star of the last century and is a typically beautiful, elusive addition to his canon of work. It provides us with a fascinating, truly touching, insight into how attached he still feels about his past. Sadly, it also gives us a glimpse into the future: this is how we’ll feel when he’s gone.