BOWIE RETURNS, A BEAUTIFUL RUIN

~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, January 8th 2012

In 1973, David Bowie released "Aladdin Sane", an album that is almost as good as its cover. In 1983, he released "Let’s Dance", his brassiest and most commercial album, loved by millions but not by him. In 1993, "Black Tie White Noise": decent late-period Bowie. In 2003, "Reality": slightly more decent late-period Bowie. In 2013, it looked as if there would be nothing more than the odd reissue—until this morning, when Bowie came out of eight years of retirement and sprang a new single on us.

He did it beautifully, slipping in silently while Europe slept, like a gentleman thief. He released the single instantly on iTunes and announced a new album, "The Next Day", for March. For his fans under the age of 20, of whom there are more than you might think, he has strolled out of pop history and into the present. For us at Intelligent Life, it was an odd moment. Bowie is our current cover star, and we had no idea this was coming.

The single, "Where Are We Now?", is hearteningly good. It takes up the baton not from "Reality", but from the less remembered "Hours…" (1999). For most of that album, Bowie assumed the persona of an ordinary middle-aged man facing up to failure. Here, he goes one better: he sounds old.

The song is a likeable nostalgic ballad with a gorgeous chorus, suffused with delicious sadness and lifted by Bowie’s singing. His voice, unheard since he added some unlikely backing vocals to a Scarlett Johansson album in 2008, is distinct from either the thin white reed of "Starman" or the big dramatic boom of "Golden Years". It is frailer than before, more freighted, shorter of breath—in a good way. Bowie has always been, among other things, an old ham, and he could be acting here. But it feels as if this may be the voice he is left with now, at 66, after decades of smoking and a few years of heart trouble: a beautiful ruin.

The effect is immensely touching. "Where Are We Now?" is to "Life On Mars?" what Lear is to Hamlet. It goes straight into the slender ranks of memorable pop music dealing with old age, alongside Johnny Cash’s "American Recordings" and Leonard Cohen’s "Old Ideas". By 3pm this afternoon, the song was No.1 on iTunes, and so was the album.

Our cover story on Bowie came about for two reasons—broadly, because he is still so much part of the zeitgeist, and specifically because the V&A in London is staging a big exhibition about him in March. "They must have known this was coming," our deputy editor said. She’s usually right, but I’m not so sure it was that way round. My guess is that Bowie’s antennae started twitching in response to the plans for the exhibition. What better moment to show that he isn’t ready to be a museum piece?

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life and rock critic of the Mail on Sunday