“Rumour” has it there may be a new Bowie album on the near horizon. Something we’re only vaguely conscious of thanks to the blanket coverage and fussy excitement afforded by mainstream media, alternative media, social media, random dog-walkers and (no doubt) a bi-plane trailing a big, long banner, the news printed in massive block capitals, the flight path closely aligned to our daily schedules.
Even Radio 4 (which for those not familiar with UK bandwidth is our much-treasured and decidedly middle-class intellectual spoken word station) got into the act, some harried reporter sent onto the streets of London the day the news broke to enquire of the various young people they have now what David Bowie meant to them. Tiny sample size aside, it transpires that David Bowie doesn’t mean very much at all (albeit some of the delightful little treasures had at least heard of the name, even if the music itself was beyond them).
To be fair, should you be a sixteen year-old dubstep fan out causing mild nuisance on the streets of wherever, there’s probably no reason to be overtly familiar with the Bowie oeuvre (unless a parent or older influence was a fan); it’s been ten years since last album Reality was released, a sabbatical many of us presumed was permanent, and such is the pace of popular culture these days that even a brief period spent hiding out in some gloomy (and metaphorical) mansion somewhere off Mulholland Drive will see you labelled as a Norma Desmond figure.
Of course, Bowie hit icon status many years before any homage to Sunset Boulevard kicked in (unless you count his early-‘70’s period, when he routinely dressed as Norma Desmond). Which places all this fuss at the prospect of new material – particularly amongst demographics such as mine – into some sort of context. The majestic, unexpected return of the bona fide rock legend…
…or so the marketing apparatus will have you believe. Because the truth behind the Bowie myth is far more complex than convention suggests. Complex, and also skewed; for once any artist has attained icon status, it becomes a decoration that its extremely difficult to renounce. A reputation that’s difficult to sully, no matter any subsequent variations in quality control or failing mojos or alliances with transient vogue that fail to stand the test of time (Brian Wilson comes to mind, as do The Rolling Stones – it’s this thing pop culture has with rewarding longevity when twinned with sustained periods of early success).
I still recall those first slivers of discovering Bowie for myself; he may have been goofing around with Jagger lip-syncing to ‘Dancin’ In The Streets’ on MTV at the time, but on my turntable he was forever Ziggy or Aladdin Sane; coming across a second-hand copy of Hunky Dory at a formative age had a significant impact upon my musical understanding. In other words, I write these words as a fan – but I’d struggle to identify anything he’s released in the last thirty-plus years that’s exuded anywhere near the same pizazz as the route straight through 1969’s eponymous album to 1980’s Scary Monsters. Traces perhaps – The Buddha Of Suburbia, Outside, Heathen; they’re all enjoyable records, perhaps even evocative records, but compare them to The Man Who Sold The World or Lodger (to name but two examples), they feel like echoes.
And the there’s The Next Day, out in March. Columbia Records are yet guide my paws towards a review copy – it might be a masterpiece, the years of Norma Desmond seclusion acting as some sort of catalyst – but if lead single ‘Where Are We Now’ is anything to go by, I suspect I may be disappointed. As a track it’s okay. Overproduced, but also shadowy, sepia-tinged, the Berlin references nicely underplayed, the toms toms bubbling away. And yet to describe a Bowie record as merely ‘okay’ feels wrong on so many levels. Or would do, if it hadn’t been for anything post-1980.
But that’s hype, I guess. Longevity, icon – someone’s ready for their close-up.
David Bowie / Where Are We Now?