Welcome to the new phase of music’s relationship with the marketplace!
David Bowie has always been known as someone who can manipulate the media as well as he can make music and certainly the campaign to promote this album has been a masterpiece; the “leaked” picture of Bowie in a bunnet on a New York street toward the end of last year, then the release to the Internet of “Where Are We Now,” without fanfare, at the start of this one. This was followed by the coy interviews with Tony Visconti, Earl Slick et al, confirming that they had been working with Bowie on an album under confidentiality agreements; then the tiresome teasing on the Internet about differing worldwide release dates and exclusive bonus material in different territories (it was about here I started losing patience, if not interest…why would Bowie, with his artistic cachet and personal fortune, be messing about with the “bonus track” nonsense which has become an all too prevalant way for artists to ruin the flow of their core album?)
I think the album was available in iTunes from 4 March, but the physical release date was 11 March in the UK, by which time there had been such a weight of positive reviews that one had to admire the campaign which could not speak its name throughout the previous three months (see for example, the full page press ad at the top of this piece – nothing as crude as “buy this record” here.) Bowie and his team had massively hyped a new artefact in the age where music as aretfact is becoming obsolete; they had created an event around the sort of event that doesn’t happen any more, the release of an album by an artist who is considered one of the most important of the last fifty years (at least to baby boomers with selective memories…)
Conveniently, the rest of the world seems to have gone Bowie daft this year – the V&A have an exhibition on him (Bowie made a point of publicising the fact he was not associated with and would not be publicising said exhibition,) there is a retrospective of his films at The Filmhouse in Edinburgh, most of the magazines and papers have had recent “exclusives” on The Dame…
So of course, I fell for it like a good spud, having heard and enjoyed the “single,” or maybe “focus track,” as you will, very much indeed. “Where Are We Now” is unlike anything else I can think of in Bowie’s canon. It’s a fragile, short piece which has been interpreted as reflecting on Bowie’s time in Berlin in the 1970’s, but I think it’s simpler and less personal than that; there’s just not enough in the lyric to tie it so autobiographically to the real David Bowie – I paticularly like that the narrator proudly expresses to the un-named listener he was able to catch a train all by himself, which could be the boast of a declasse and over-protected rock star, but could also be that of someone who’s not very good at organising things.
Anyway, why would Bowie write autobiographically? It undervalues his skills to think that a song which namechecks places in Berlin must be about Bowie and Iggy in the seventies.
He also sings “Where Are We Now” with great expression, quite unlike the labouring and laboured voices he’s used in the past. He never really missed the chance to strike a pose, but on this track he is for once a convincing narrator.
There are effectively no record stores in Edinburgh now where I could buy a new mainstream rock record; I expected that I would find a copy in the supermarket and indeed I did, so I bought The Next Day along with a few bits and pieces of groceries; I get the feeling this will become a pattern…
Happily, it’s an engaging, melodic, inventive record. The re-union with Tony Visconti as producer (and sometimes bass and guitar player) was a great idea, as his attention to the detail and manipulation of the sonic spectrum means that the album gives up its detail gradually with each new listening. There is also the very refreshing impression of the musicians all playing together at the same time.
The over-riding mood is of the glossy, bashy pop of the first sides of Heroes and Low, but at least half of the album is reminiscent of the best music of Crowded House (notably “Valentine’s Day” and “I’d Rather Be High,” which I think is my favourite right now.)
So, happily, Bowie’s made a record which is the equal of its masterly hype, as well as being interesting and refreshing to listen to. Which is what music is supposed to be after all the games of interpretation are over.