independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Take a bow, Mr Bowie, you've surprised legions of fans yet again

IT hardly needs to be said, but David Bowie is one of the most significant figures in popular music history, a visionary who rewrote the rule book time and time again.

From long-haired hippy to glam rock god and from avant-garde experimentalist to million-seller with his finger on the commercial pulse, he has captivated generation after generation – and coloured the lives of so many of us in the best possible way.

He is also a man of surprise. That much became apparent at 5am yesterday when, without any prior announcement, the birthday boy released a brand new song, 'Where Are We Now?' – an apt title for an artist who had seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth.

And if that wasn't enough to generate feverish excitement among his legions of devotees, he announced that there would be a new album too. 'The Next Day' – his 30th album in a once prolific career and the first in 10 years – will be released on March 8.

What makes the news so noteworthy is that nobody seems to have had an inkling that he was working on new music. Word had it that he had turned his back on his career, having suffered a serious heart scare shortly after the release of his last album, 'Reality'.

It looked as though the 66-year-old was devoting himself exclusively to wife Iman and daughter Lexie and their life in New York. It seemed like he was content to let his enviable back catalogue offer a reminder of the heights he scaled, and not bother with the business of writing and recording new material.

The film director Danny Boyle managed to get Queen Elizabeth to play a part in his spectacular Olympics opening ceremony, but he had no such luck with Bowie – despite repeatedly begging him to take part.

But it's now emerged that he was working under a thick veil of secrecy with his long-term collaborator and producer, Tony Visconti. It's remarkable in an age when just about everything gets leaked in advance that he was able to keep this – and his new music – well and truly under wraps.

There's the spirit of punk in Bowie's decision to eschew all the usual rigmarole associated with the industry. These days, record companies devise enormous campaigns in the run-up to the releases of major albums, so it's refreshing that a truly iconic figure would side-step all those bells and whistles and simply post his new song and video on his website.

It makes listening to 'Where Are We Now?' all the sweeter. The song itself is vintage Bowie and finds him ruminating on those fruitful years he spent in Berlin at the end of the 1970s working on a trilogy of daring albums, 'Low', 'Heroes' and 'Lodger', that would help shape music well into the following decade.

There's a melancholy undertow present in the song as well as a hint of sadness in his vocals. His voice is as distinct as ever, although there's a world-worn quality that wasn't there before.

It's a reminder that the former Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Thin White Duke is of pensionable age. The flame-haired, gender-bending kid who, with the great guitarist Mick Ronson in tow, provided 'Top of the Pops' viewers with one of its iconic moments more than 40 years ago, is confronted by the prospect of old age.

In eight weeks' time we will know if Bowie and Visconti have fashioned another album to match his best work or if, as was often the case after 1980's 'Scary Monsters', the weight of expectation will prove impossible to live up to.

Bowie has long been a canny operator and it can hardly be a surprise that he is choosing to release 'The Next Day' on the very month that London's Victoria & Albert Museum launches a major career-spanning exhibition on him.

Some say the exhibition is long overdue. A new album certainly is. But in an environment when ' The X-Factor' and its imitators hog the headlines, it's great to see a proper pop star back among us.

Welcome back to Earth, Major Tom.

Irish Independent

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