After a 10-year hiatus, the very release of new David Bowie material is an event in itself, spreading tendrils of anticipation across disparate media, almost regardless of the qualities of the song which heralds such keenly-felt anticipation. But what of ‘Where Are We Now’, in and of itself? What does it tell us about Bowie in 2013, and more to the point, is it any good?
It’s too tempting not to poke some gentle, if sacreligious, fun. The world-weary vocal performance, the deadpan video, and the confused song title bring to mind a favourite uncle or grandfather, suddenly waking in a temporary confusion from the back seat, perhaps when the car stops at Watford Gap services to take on Ginsters pasties and sticky sweets. This is not Bowie at his most assertive – the tempo is glacial, the instrumentation bland, the voice cracked and mournful. Indeed, one could go as far as to use the word dull. But the song does have its subtle beauty. It’s not clear what key it’s in – the chorus starts on the root note and ends on the root note, it’s just that those two notes happen to be different; chord changes are obscure yet work beautifully, and even though the voice is morose, it still carries all the distinctive hallmarks of that which has enchanted popular music for decades. Welcome back, David.
Lyrically, the theme is death and Berlin. Until the last minute, when things pick up, and it’s almost about love. And Berlin. The video shamelessly misspells some of the German capital’s name-checked landmarks and inexplicably casts Bowie as a double-headed soft toy, but hey, it’s all in the name of art. The most fascinating detail is the weary blow of the lips at 3:26 – the universal sign for “I’ve had enough now”. And perhaps he has – after years ensconced in New York domestic bliss, now it’s time for the carefully-choreographed comeback (together with an exhibition at the V&A and accompanying stratospherically-priced limited-edition catalogue, for goodness’ sake!).
But what if he just can’t be bothered? Why not just leave the legacy and be done with it? Time will tell, but I have my doubts whether Bowie’s heart is really in it. Compare his mood here with the activity of his contemporaries – Neil Young is still trashing guitars in squalls of feedback at age 67, and his old playmate Lou Reed is trading riffs with Metallica aged 70. The hope is high that the full album will treat a wider gamut of Bowie’s talents: at least he might do a little dance.
This is a deeply schizophrenic track. Superficially dull, but with exciting details. Plenty of talk of death, but with an uplifting finish. Daft-as-a-brush video that hints at Bowie’s fascinating and still relevant Berlin-period backstory. I don’t want to listen to it anymore, but still can’t wait for the new material. So, then: a dismal, error-laden piece of work from a recalcitrant, overrated pensioner, or a blinding opening salvo for the next chapter in the career of one of the most important practitioners of popular music of the last five decades? In fact, in keeping with the theme: it’s both. And it really makes me want to visit Berlin again.
Somewhere between a 6 and a 9/10
David Bowie’s long-awaited new single ‘Where Are We Now?’ is out now on Columbia.