David Bowie: The Return Of The Thin White Hope
, January 11th, 2016 01:00
After a decade of artlessness Bowie is back. So why are so many clowns complaining, asks Chris Roberts
Garbo talks! And suddenly 2013 has started, with the return of a thin white hope. Make no mistake: this is Picasso resurrected in a Rolf Harris era. This is not "industry hype", or another re-cooked hawking of heritage rock, or a "true return to form". This is not finding a few more unpublished Beatles photographs, or the Rolling Stones making one last snatch of the gas money from grannies' purses. This is not even the Bowie copyists coming back, which would be better than some things. This is still the exotic other. This is still different. Still art. Still dignified, in a business where dignity is not the done thing. This is class, in an age when class has acquired a bad name.
What is it the back-lashing naysayers actually wanted? His retirement confirmed? The new song is already too good and counter-intuitive for that to have been a better idea, however resonant his silence was. For us blinkered Bowie fans to not be excited? But then we would be boring and jaded, and apparently that is also wrong. For vintage stars (and Bowie was always, and remains, an idea more than just a "rock" star) to be euthanised? To leave the playpen clear for what, exactly? Radical new visionary voices like the Palma Violets? Haim? Bowie, who showed a generation or two that there was more to life than the mundane and the everyday, has earned the right to trust his own creative judgment. Past misfires like Tin Machine (ha! got there before you did!) in fact confirm this: no genius was ever reliably consistent. Yet as geniuses go, his success rate is stellar.
Yesterday, on his 66th birthday, David Bowie gave us a revelation, as he has so often done. The news that there is a new album – The Next Day – out in March came as a surprise (tinted with delight, bewilderment and relief) to almost everybody. Even unsung-hero collaborator Tony Visconti hadn't said a word. This has been announced and presented and choreographed with matchless elegance, cool and subtlety. Here is a single. Here is a (so wrong, yet so right) video. They exist. Do what you will with them. Both are understated, both offer new depths with each perusal. The delicately-sung single, 'Where Are We Now?', is not "instant", or flash. It is not a sad by-numbers attempt to recapture old glories. It is very much Bowie, but it is a quivering ghost of a Bowie song, the imprint of his fabulous past gently laid over a forlorn, elegiac yet life-affirming drape of meditations and reveries about missing the old Europe and, possibly, youth. It is becoming of the man, and of the star. And it is becoming obvious that, after all this time, he wouldn't have let it out of the house if he didn't believe it would add to his body of work and polish his mythology. It is spectral, frail, yearning without chest-beating, candid in its few, clipped phrases and sighs concerning the heart's filthy lessons. The crooning peacock is now a whispering sage.
It's been ten years. Seven since a concert. Nobody knew back then that 2003's pretty-good-if-not-great Reality, which closely followed the underrated Heathen, by turns playful and justly pompous, was going to be the last recorded music contact for a decade. An artless decade, as it turned out. David Bowie was unwell. Heart surgery. A lollipop hitting him in the eye on stage in Oslo, for freak's sake. Last year on his 65th birthday I wrote that he was by all accounts enjoying relaxing, in New York, with his wife and daughter. He'd said that he missed his son (film director Duncan Jones) growing up, and didn't want to make the same mistake with his daughter. There was the odd cameo on other people's albums, but mostly there was an atypical restraint and reclusive hush from the personification of charm. And so rumour upon rumour rushed in to fill the vacuum. Had he (finally) run out of ideas? Was he so vain that he didn't want the world commenting on his ageing? (The new video is vanity-free: if anything it wilfully amplifies his age). A couple of months ago he was photographed stepping out for a sandwich in Manhattan, resembling Tom Courtenay more than ever, and everybody had an opinion on What This Meant.
Well, he had this up his sleeve and close to his chest. If the album is as good as Heathen and Reality, it'll be better than most people's albums. If it's a masterpiece like (insert your own favourite Bowie album here) it'll rule the year. The former is, of course, more likely. Maybe he hasn't the need or desire to break new ground any more. And maybe the fact that he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't has stemmed his flow these last few years. When he made slick shallow Eighties pop albums, he got slaughtered. He made an esoteric arthouse album, Outside, and critics were divided. He made a down-with-the-kids "jungle" album, Earthling, and critics were divided. One day those divided critics will pull themselves together and acknowledge that this man is, basically, the polar opposite of plodding Eric Clapton. His initial pop peers – Elton John, Rod Stewart – have become gurning light-entertainment clowns-as-cash-registers, rendering the high-spots of their early catalogues almost impossible to enjoy. He is everything critics say they want: a charismatic star who takes bold, unpredictable steps. And he won't be here forever. If the single is indicative, The Next Day may involve further musings on mortality: a theme touched on in Heathen and Reality and obsessed over on Hours. (Although the album cover suggests he hasn't forsaken irreverent humour).
One thing the quiet decade has given him is added, Dietrich-esque mystique. Lifelong fans pined, but significantly even those who'd preferred red meat to shimmering ether twigged that his presence on the cultural map was sorely missed. The generation primarily influenced by Bowie now found style and post-modern deconstruction hard to pitch. Sixties-based, blues-spawned retro-music slouched back into "fashion" for a second humdrumming. Intelligence, flair, durable glamour and any sense of "rock" music as something more than rock music were stuck on the back burner. The "youth" may not consciously have had their lives changed by Bowie, but like characters in 'Drive-In Saturday' they stare at the old footage and hear the old songs and know this is from another place, another dimension, and is deathlessly cool, offering gateways to something more. For example, 2012 demonstrated that you could abuse and misuse the song 'Heroes' in a thousand different ways and it would still retain the strength to shudder the foundations of the places where your heart and your brain lived.
So the comeback is subtle, yes, but it is huge. Not commercially, probably, and it's very doubtful he'll play live, but in the sense that Atlantis is back on the atlas. Few would ever accuse Bowie of being stupid, and in the new song's references to Berlin there is perhaps a shimmy of evocation, to remind us that this man wasn't just Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane and the plastic soul man who fell to Earth; he was the mind behind the chronically influential Low and "Heroes" and Lodger, the so-called "Berlin triptych" (though partly recorded in France), the aesthetic stock of which remains untouchably high among the critical establishment. If he has always cross-referenced, alluded to earlier pieces, he has done so with the air and grace that a writer interested in internal excavation does. This is not the same as, say, touring the 40th anniversary of an old album. As ever, he recognises and values the imprecise power of suggestion, the nectar of knowingness, the haiku of hauntedness that is a hint, not a holler.
There's old music, there's new music, and there's David Bowie. If you are not jubilant, or at least mildly intrigued, by his return from behind the curtain, you are making your cosmos smaller than it needs to be.
Originally published in January 2013