David Bowie's shock new song is one of rock's most welcome comebacks.
AFTER 10 years of reclusive silence, David Bowie has suddenly and dramatically reappeared in the pop firmament. In the small hours of Tuesday morning, on his 66th birthday, with no warning, a new Bowie song was released on the internet. Lush, stately, beautifully strange, weaving resonant piano chords, decaying synths and echoing drums around a simple chord progression and a weary, tenderly understated, quietly defiant vocal, the ageing Starman reminisces about days in Berlin, sings of "walking the dead" and wonders, "Where are we now?"
Accompanied by a strange clip of Bowie as a kind of pensive, melancholic, two-headed puppet, Where Are We Now? may be the most surprising and welcome comeback in rock history.
The clamour for Bowie's return has been growing in recent years, compounded by a sense that maybe we had heard the last of him. His office turns down all offers of work, recently rebuffing requests to headline the London Olympics opening ceremony.
When paparazzi pictures appeared in October of Bowie walking anonymously on the streets of New York, carrying a packed lunch and casually dressed in flat cap, faded jeans and sweatshirt, it was widely suggested in the media that Ziggy Stardust had become a recluse suffering from debilitating health problems.
Bowie's last album was Reality in 2003. He began to curtail work commitments after suffering a minor heart attack during a world tour in 2004. Since then, there have been a couple of charity shows in New York and backing vocal contributions for a smattering of friends, including Arcade Fire, Scarlett Johansson and David Gilmour.
It might have seemed an ignominious end to such an incredible career, but my own inquiries suggested the truth could be more prosaic. In his last major interview, in 2007, Bowie claimed to be enjoying married life with supermodel Iman and dedicating himself to bringing up their daughter Alexandria.
"I don't have that sense of loneliness I had before, which was very strong," he confessed. "I never thought I would be such a family-oriented guy. But somebody said that as you get older you become the person you always should have been, and I feel that's happening to me."
After hearing reports from friends, neighbours and colleagues, I concluded that Bowie might be the first rock star to have embarked on a quiet and dignified retirement.
It transpires that Bowie has been working quietly in the studio with legendary producer (and New York neighbour) Tony Visconti, collaborator on 12 of Bowie's classic albums. Together, they have recorded 14 tracks for a new album, The Next Day, due to be released in March.
Over a 36-year recording career from 1967 to 2003, Bowie established a shining reputation as a neophile and futurist always on the lookout for new angles and approaches, his chameleonic transformations made accessible to mainstream audiences by his fantastic pop instincts.
His later work may not be regarded as warmly as the unbeatable run of 1971-83, a dozen extraordinary albums of ever-changing musical styles, yet right up to his effective retirement he was lauded for his boldness and adventure, a refusal to fall back on the safety of nostalgic formulas. Paradoxically, it is the world that has become nostalgic for Bowie.
Bowie seems the ideal icon for these uncertain times, the kind of pop visionary who could bring the blurred possibilities of a disintegrating music culture into sharp focus. It is, somewhat ironically, a status freighted with problems for the comeback of a 66-year-old veteran, who can hardly be expected to show us rock's future and yet runs the risk of disappointing if he doesn't match his own adventurous past.
What version of Bowie does the public actually yearn for? And will it correspond with whatever has driven the artist himself back into the studio?
The single bodes well. It is to the slightly wonky, retro-futuristic ambience of late '70s rock electronica that Where Are We Now? returns, evoking memories of Bowie's Berlin period not only in the mix of thick synth sound and dramatically poised vocal presence, but also in a lyric and video that carries us through the German city's streets.
It was a musical style influenced by one-time collaborator Brian Eno and once heralded for its icy futurism, but now it sounds familiar enough to be instantly accessible yet oddly contemporary. Retro synths are all the rage once again, early electronica deemed to have a quality of human warmth often absent in hi-tech digital pop.
Bowie describes himself as "a man lost in time" and the song resonates with qualities of melancholic memory, haunted by a very personal sense of time and place, before building around rolling drums and swimming synths to a hopeful, if ambiguous, conclusion, in which Bowie's voice rises to embrace an oblique stoicism "as long as there's sun, as long as there's rain" leading to "as long as there's me, as long as there's you".
It's not a big, dramatic comeback - and all the better for it. Rather it is a small, perfectly formed, poetic song that doesn't quite yield its mysteries and leaves you longing for more.
The way the track appeared unannounced in cyberspace with a peculiar, undemonstrative video is actually a potent demonstration of Bowie's nuanced understanding of modern media. There is nothing flash or trashy about this, no hint of showbiz razzmatazz or old-fashioned bells and whistles. It's a viral whisper, a ghost in the machine, serving as tantalising bait for the forthcoming album.
According to his beleaguered representatives, there will be "no interviews, no live shows, no explanations, just the album". Yet within hours of its release, Where Are We Now? was already at the top of the iTunes chart, the sexagenarian holding off such contemporary pop stars as Will.i.am and Taylor Swift. Somehow, in an overexposed digital Twitter age when nobody seems to be able to keep a secret, Bowie has staged a dramatic reappearance with dignity and mystery intact.
Those of us concerned about the dismal creative state of modern music have been hoping for some young gun to emerge from their bedroom studio with something to take our breath away in 2013. Strange to consider that an old gun might have beaten them all to it.