Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Where Are We Now?

As you may or may not have heard, this morning David Bowie released his first single in ten years.  And before we get into the song itself, I think I speak for an awful lot of music fans when I say that it sure is good to hear from Bowie again.  His near absence from public life has been somewhat troubling, particularly following a health scare a few years ago.

I've gone on (and on) before about how much I love Bowie and how much he meant to me as a teen - and to this day, I suppose. And, so, I'll try to be brief this time.

For me, Bowie's true appeal lies in his mastery not only of image, but of imagery.....not just in the creation of mysterious personas with great personal style, but overlaying his albums with richly textured music and phenomenally nuanced lyrics.  

In fact, while it may have been his image that piqued my intererest in Bowie back in 1990 (or whenever it was), it really was the lyrical content that had me hooked.  Specifically, I remember hearing the song "Five Years" for the first time, and being knocked out by the lyric:

I think I saw you in an ice cream parlor
Drinking milkshakes, cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine
Don't think you knew you were in this song

The image in my mind is as fresh today as it was on the afternoon that I first heard the song, and I still feel a sense of melancholy upon hearing it; not only does Bowie nail the sense of lost infatuation between one character the other, but the juxtaposition of it against an impending apocalypse is the type of tragically grotesque and romantic contradiction that makes Bowie so appealing.  (See also: "Aladdin Sane",  "Lady Grinning Soul", "China Girl", "Station to Station", "The Voyeur of Utter Destruction", et al).

Which brings us to today's single.  

"Where Are We Now" is more or less on par with much of his more recent output.  Soft, mid-tempo, and absolutely made for crooning, it might be mistaken for an outtake from Hours... which could come across as a backhanded compliment.   

But the fact is that this sort of fare has been what's worked best for Bowie of lateIn fact, after the Earthling album, most of Bowie's forays into guitar-based rock came off forced and unconvincing.  Conversely, "Where Are We Now" seems deeply introspective and authentic, building to a subtle but very satisfying crescendo.  

Plenty has already been written about the lyrical content and its presumed connection to Bowie's time spent in Berlin in the late 70's.  And regardless as to whether this is accurate, the fact is that once again it is the imagery of a man surveying his past, seemingly alone in a crowded urban space, that creates a relatable emotional touch point for almost anyone old enough to have a past to survey.

No, it isn't the gender-bending glam, or the coke-fueled blue eyed soul, or the radio-ready pop that made (and kept) Bowie famous throughout his career.  

But at his age, does anyone really need that?  We already have Pete Townsend doing windmills over his sizable paunch and Mick Jagger shaking his skinny senior citizen butt all over the place.  And they're both great. But they also remind us that not only are our idols no longer 27, but neither are we. And we never will be again.

To that end, there's something remarkable about an aging rock star singing about....well, aging.  And doing so in a manner that allows a similarly aging listener to relate and identify, rather than be filled with the all-too-familiar feelings of latent dread, disappointment and denial about the reality of thier aging years.

Or perhaps that's just me. Judge for yourself.