Posts Tagged ‘where are we now’

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David Bowie’s The Next Day – the best comeback album ever?

By Stefano on March 4th, 2013

bowie-nmeSimon Poulter of the excellent What Would David Bowie Do? blog salutes the magnificent return of his hero.

When What Would David Bowie Do? was conceived in a fit of pique one June morning in 2010, it was generally assumed that the object of its title was quietly enjoying retirement in New York, walking daughter Lexi to school and basking in the warm glow of marriage to the former supermodel Iman.

Sightings had been rare since 2004 when, towards the end of his Reality Tour, David Bowie underwent heart surgery. A guest spot with Ricky Gervais in Extras, a one-off show with David Gilmour, and a supporting appearance at the premiere of his director son Duncan Jones’ film Moon seemed to be about it. Even a photograph, last October, of Bowie near his Lafayette Street condominium, apparently out buying the papers, seemed nothing more than a rare sighting of a reclusive retiree.

On January 7 this year, the day before The Dame’s 66th birthday, nothing seemed stirring in Bowieland. The next day changed all that.

The Dame returns

Ever since the Brixton-born David Robert Jones released Space Oddity in the summer of 1969, cashing in on Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, the renamed David Bowie has, arguably, been the most talked about rock star of his generation. And I mean, talked about. I can’t think of another music icon – even Elvis – to have been so forensically debated. Madonna may have absorbed Bowie’s ability to evolve visually, but she is nevertheless dilettante in comparison.

Because, whichever version or angle of Bowie you choose to examine – folk-rocker, glam-rocker, funk-rocker, arguable godfather of punk, actor, drug-addled superstar, diva…the list is, actually, endless – no-one has commanded as much re-examination. Even with moments of misadventure – quasi-fascist salutes at Victoria Station, the disappearing-up-own-arse Glass Spider Tour, Tin Machine, flirtations with club culture, discussions with the Labrynth costume designer – Bowie has always been able to command maximum media interest.

So, when early on January 8, word starting spreading that Bowie had released a new single, gobs were universally smacked. When it emerged that he’d actually been working in complete secret for two years on an album or more’s worth of new material (the October photograph was actually taken outside the recording studio…), journalists and long-time fans alike started experiencing tremors of excitement…and fear.

Comebacks are rarely that good. The chasm between expectation and reality is usually perilously deep. It’s even worse when you have more than 40 years of work to be compared with. Thus, the conventional wisdom is that the Stones haven’t made a decent record since Exile On Main Street, and McCartney since Let It Be, which is like saying a stick man cartoon by Picasso on the back of a beer mat is “a bit crap” by comparison with his Guernica.

As for Bowie, his golden years, ho-ho, were behind him in the era of Ziggy, Young Americans and the Berlin trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger. The arrival, then, next week of Bowie’s first new album in a decade, The Next Day, should be met with trepidation. Much like the adage “never meet your heroes”, the grave concern is that it won’t be any good, that it will be some latter day Bowie knock-off, like more recent efforts by Bob Dylan, closer to self-parody.

bowie-next day

That gorgeous single

When Where Are We Now? was released on January 8, the majority of journalists went into paroxysms of ecstasy that not only was The Dame back, back, back, but back with a song of melancholy beauty, or beautiful melancholy, and that if the subsequent album was anywhere as good, life as we know it will change for the better.

Other journalists were simply left gasping for air that Bowie should have been able to work in absolute secret for two years with producer Tony Visconti and a small group of musicians like bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, drummer Zachary Alford and guitarist Gerry Leonard, who formed the nucleus of Bowie’s group on The Reality Tour, without something leaking. After all, in this era of Twitter and celebrities posting photographs of themselves in all manner of private moments, it is virtually impossible not to know every last detail about, well, everyone.

There were, however, a few lone dissenters, professional curmudgeons who declared “meh…”, largely for contrarian effect, methinks. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, of course, and if that was genuinely their feeling, then they have a perfect right to accuse everyone else of praising the emperor’s new clothes.

The reality, however, of The Next Day, is that it is without doubt one of Bowie’s best albums. Ever.

“But he would say that, wouldn’t he” is, I know, your immediate reaction to that statement. But the truth is, it really is that good.

True, rationality is a scarce commodity when an icon like Bowie produces something new, lest he should produce something after such silence.

The best moments

The title track which opens the album is vintage Bowie. Grating guitars and boinking bass notes à-la Fashion introduce a song that sets the lyrical tone of the entire album, as Bowie – rather than looking back in wistful dotage, as some predicted it would be – looks towards a future dystopia. Bleak, that premise may be, but it’s also a damn good pop song, with the chorus “Here I am, not quite dying” providing as much a demonstration of Bowie’s sense of humour as a statement of his vitality. Take note, vendors of effluence pervading our TV screens on a Saturday night.

The job of rock star is largely about swagger. That, to be honest, is mainly what makes them a rock star to begin with. Bowie, one suspects, has always been an actor playing a rock star, applying a form of total theatre throughout his career. Dirty Boys starts with a jumpy, nervous sax-driven rhythm and a telephone-filtered vocal treatment before opening up into an Anthony Burgess-esque story of thuggery and feather-hatted yobs smashing up Finchley Fair with cricket bats. It’s hard to imagine One Direction doing anything similar anytime soon.

While Bowie has been away the cult of celebrity has shifted on its axis, as reality TV shows have turned non-descript fools into household names selling self-branded perfume. The Stars (Are Out Tonight) wryly addresses this with an imagined world that celebrities have actually taken over (“They burn you with their radium smiles and trap you with their beautiful eyes”). Given the amount of media attention the Kardashian family generate, it’s possible this may have already taken place, but on this sweeping song – released as the second single from the album – Bowie takes the notion of The Man Who Fell To Earth and applies it to celebrities – “dead ones and the living” suggesting that “Brad” (Pitt we assume) and “Kate” (Winslet?) are amongst us as aliens. And he does it with the sort of stonking mock braggadocio that made China Girl such a blast.

Within Bowie’s catalogue there are songs that make great stadium anthems, songs you can swing your pants to, songs you can rock out to and songs you can, you know, do the thing to. Love Is Lost is neither of these things. Instead, with its crisp, treated snare drum and bleed-in of heavy church organ chords, it is one of those Bowie songs that creeps up on you before attacking with a sharp lyric, this one about an arriviste individual whose “possessions are new” but whose “fear is as old as the world”.

When Where Are We Now? slipped in under the cover of radar in January, the incredulity of its unexpected appearance soon gave way to an excess examination. Like scientists scrutinising bacteria found in a small lump of space rock, marvelling at the possibility that this may be microscopic evidence of life elsewhere, Where Are We Now? was placed immediately in the petri dish.

Was Bowie dying? Was this really just a melancholy one-off to say farewell? Was it a mournful recollection of his days in Berlin with Iggy and Eno, recording the albums that would critically resurrect his career? As producer Tony Visconti explained in interviews, it turns out that this is the most downbeat of an otherwise upbeat collection of 14 tracks (17 if you buy the ‘deluxe’ version). It is, after repeated listens over the last six weeks (and I mean, repeated – on January 8 it was the only thing I listened to all day), one of the most beautiful songs The Dame has ever produced. One that ultimately uplifts, despite its gloomy premise. And, yes, it will be amazing to hear live. DB, please note.

Out Suedeing Suede

The clock is turned back almost to the beginning with the Hunky Dory-era feel of Valentine’s Day, one of those terrific vignettes Bowie is so adept at, the story of a quirky little sociopath with a “tiny face” and a “tiny heart” who spends his time being a bit of arse.

Bowie dives into his broad vocal spectrum for If You Can’t See Me, sounding like a Dalek in another song about a despotic nutjob and, possibly, a cross-dressing nutjob (“I could wear your new blue shoes, I should wear your old red dress”). It’s a frenetic, short song which threatens to drag Bowie back to his ill-advised late-’90s encounter with drum’n'bass, but mercifully stops short.

I’d Rather Be High is the most lary track on the album, and one that the Gallaghers will kick themselves over, with it’s Tomorrow Never Knows vibe and Champagne Supernova guitar. It’s an open, expansive song, the story of a soldier wishing he was anywhere but the desert battlefield he finds himself, “training these guns on those men in the sand”. Much of this album concerns itself with an imagined future of dictatorial chaos, but this track – of all – is the closest Bowie appears to get to commenting on the present, having last written anything only two years after his adopted hometown was shattered by airliners hitting the World Trade Center, and the Middle East being opened up for revenge in the aftermath.

Just because Bowie has spent the last few years out of the limelight doesn’t mean that he’s been living Miss Havisham-like in his New York apartment brooding. It’s quite possible that, when not doing schoolruns and picking up groceries, he’s been quite happily enjoying life. Being married to Iman helps, which might explain the loose enjoyment of Boss Of Me, another great pop song with the pure romantic hook of “Who’d have ever thought of it, who’d have ever dreamed, that a small-town girl like you could be the boss of me?”. Either that, or a very odd Bruce Springsteen reference.

Opening with the longest saxophone note since Lee Thompson’s on Night Boat To Cairo, Dancing Out In Space draws together two of Bowie’s longest thematic interests – space and alienation – in a boppy, finger-popping, early-’80s jig of a song that could easily have found its way onto Let’s Dance.

Making a reference, like that, to an earlier excerpt from the back catalogue is an ever-present danger in listening to The Next Day. Such is our affinity with Bowie’s style, Bowie’s sound and Bowie’s storytelling that there are throwbacks and references to so much of his 44-year career. None are necessarily intentional, or attempts at self-regarding pastiche.

With every new song on the album there is both familiarity and unfamiliarity: How Does The Grass Grow? is, lyrically, another vision of hell, but with a Broadway-camp “na-na-na-nah” chorus and the sort of tight, solid bass, guitar and drum performance that underpinned the Berlin trilogy.

Underpinned by the sort of power-chorded, riff-heavy guitar work that powered 1980s poodle rock, (You Will) Set The World On Fire harks back to New York in the 1960s and the hippy-dippy aspirations of the Greenwich Village folk set. While the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan may have been singing about peaceful revolution with acoustic guitars and harmonicas, Bowie hits out at the ill-faited idealism of the peace movement, presenting another view of modern hell, but from the perspective of a certain cynicism “I can hear the nation cry”.

The influence of Scott Walker

Taking it’s title from Heartbreak Hotel, Bowie takes a melodramatic tour through Scott Walker territory with the old-school ballad You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. It isn’t a happy song, calling up more imagery of a world-gone-wrong as the backdrop of story about a relationship-gone-wrong.

Walker’s influence makes another appearance with Heat, a short, almost coda of a final track of the ‘standard’ version of The Next Day, in which Bowie croons his way through a song about self-questioning, replete with Starman ch-ch-chang guitars, and a string arrangement so wigged out you half expect William Shatner to pop up, overacting his way through the spoken lyrics of Space Oddity. It is, it must be said, a very odd end to the album. But at 52 minutes in total length, The Next Day is a full and as nourishing a Bowie record as anyone could have hoped for.

It is a proper album. This is no collection of scraps that have been hanging around, but an album that, from start to finish, has purpose and meaning. There was so much to be fearful of. Mercifully, those fears were completely unfounded. Welcome back David. And thanks.



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Happy Birthday David Bowie – and thanks for Where Are We Now? a lovely present…

By Stefano on January 8th, 2013

Simon Poulter edits What Would David Bowie Do, so he seemed the right person to have the last word on what has been a momentous day for fans of the Dame.

So the Dame is back, back, BACK. Unexpected and brilliantly unannounced.

On his 66th birthday (a date he appropriately shares with Elvis Presley), out of seemingly nowhere, David Bowie has released Where Are We Now?, a haunting and, to be oxymoronic, joyously melancholic single.

And there’s more: the equally unexpected new album The Next Day, due in March. This amounts to a bounty of riches from Bowie. For an artist who appeared to have withdrawn from public life following heart surgery nine years ago (his last “appearance” was being papped in New York while out buying music magazines in October), this most enigmatic of reappearances has brought delight and wonder to the Bowiedom.

His last live performance – singing the Roger Waters parts of Comfortably Numb on a David Gilmour solo show – was in 2006, and since then it was assumed by many that the Dame had entered gentle retirement. Even news that London’s V&A museum was to be stage a major Bowie exhibition this spring raised speculation that the singer himself was behind its curation, suggesting new activity. His ‘people’ strenuously denied any involvement from or endorsement by Bowie, but given the dates of the exhibition and the release of The Next Day, one can’t help feeling the timing is more than coincidental.

Time will tell. For now, lets savour the moment: Where Are We Now? – produced by Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer on the legendary Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger – nods to that period with various references to Berlin streets.

A suggested album cover for The Next Day, with the title simply superimposed over the Heroes sleeve, hints at Bowie using these new recordings to reflect.

Where Are We Now? certainly has the air of someone in retrospective contemplation. It’s piano-driven melody with a simple synth bed and and spacy drum track, is tied to somewhat mournful lyrics and an apparent sadness in Bowie’s voice.

The accompanying video is equally downbeat, featuring Bowie’s face attached to a puppet, with the song’s lyrics peppered throughout like an abstract karaoke screen, while suitably dour images of Berlin pass through.

Plenty will assume that this is Bowie’s most strident gesture yet of bowing out, just as Bob Dylan’s Tempest was meant to be his signal to the world that it was all over (based on the loose conjecture that The Tempest was thought to be Shakespeare’s swansong as a playwright). But Bowie is, and always has been, an enigmatic actor, and his moments of Greta Garbo moments of withdrawal have been numerous. But then, as his official spokesman said today in a statement, “Throwing shadows and avoiding the industry treadmill is very David Bowie.” Quite true.

He hasn’t performed live since 2006 and has rarely been seen in public since then. His last studio album came out 10 years ago, and there has been an air of reflection in a lot of his most recent work, “most recent” not fully reflecting how long it has been since we’ve had anything new to devour. The beautiful Survive, taken off his final EMI album, Hours is a perfect example of a reflective Bowie, rather than the more provactive and even upbeat Bowie of yore.

Last year Bowie was reportedly approached to play a part in the London Olympics opening ceremony, but turned the opportunity down (to be replaced by a projected montage that served only to remind . The assumption was made that, following his Reality tour in 2003, and the heart bypass that truncated that, the Dame had walked – not trounced – quietly off into the Manhattan sunset.

However, first thing this morning, Bowie’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts had other ideas: “CHECK OUT WWW.DAVIDBOWIE.COM NOW!” trumpeted @DavidBowieReal. “Think we’re in for a big surprise…” If you’ve not already stumbled upon it, you need to check out http://www.davidbowie.com/ for a very well kept secret right now. This really is turning out to be quite some birthday!”.

Few have disagreed. Indeed, some have become quite emotional at the news. Where Are We Now? may not be a classic Bowie song, but it is certainly classic Bowie.

“I’m so insanely excited,” tweeted Caitlin Moran. “It’s like hearing King Arthur’s voice from the cave.”Even Duncan Jones, Bowie’s film maker son, commented on Twitter: “Would be lovely if all of you could spread the word about da’s new album. First in ten years, and its a good ‘un!”

2012 was a year of major anniversaries, in particular celebrating 1962 as a year of cultural epochs – debuts for The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and James Bond amongst them. With the surprise appearance of new material from David Bowie, it’s quite possible that we have a lot to look forward to in 2013, with the emphasis on “forward”, even if with a tinge of nostalgia about it.

So Happy Birthday, David. And thanks for the present. It really is just what we’ve always wanted.



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David Bowie celebrates 66th birthday with new single, Where Are We Now

By shinychris on January 8th, 2013

It is difficult to contain my excitement this morning. Just as I had (along with most other people) assumed Bowie was enjoying retirement counting his royalties from last summer’s playing of Heroes, up he pops with a new single and an album promised. Called Where Are We Now, and produced by Tony Visconti, the new single sounds quite melancholy – a bit like Thursday’s Child and Survive from the excellent 1999 Hours album.

His voice also sounds a little shakier, but then he is 66 I guess. The single contains lots of references to the period when he lived in Berlin in the 1970s where he recorded Low and the weird video features a cut-out of his head sitting next to a woman some people assume to be Bjork – though I’m not sure. I think it’s a good single with a catchy chorus though not a massive departure from what he’s done before.

But that’s not all. Promised on March 11 is a new album called The Next Day which is bound to be massive, considering Bowie has been absent from the music scene, living as a virtual recluse if the media is to believed, for the last 10 years or so. I can’t wait. You can get full details of downloads for the single and a link to the video on Vimeo on David’s official website, David Bowie.com.




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