David Bowie surprised fans — and even his own colleagues — this week by releasing a new single and announcing his first album in almost ten years, to be titled The Next Day.
The song Where Are We Now? is lyrically simple, poetic and builds to a warm, humble climax. Its mood is reminiscent of Slip Away on Bowie’s 2002 album Heathen, and of the similarly introspective and retrospective Thursday’s Child, from 1999’s Hours. He is again collaborating with Tony Visconti, who has helped bring forth some of Bowie’s most striking albums including the “Berlin trilogy”, plus Scary Monsters, and in the 2000s, Heathen and Reality.
Bowie’s re-emergence is sneaky, surprising and very exciting, as the artist has been very quiet since his worldwide Reality tour in 2003. It’s been rumoured in recent years that Bowie has been unwell, and/or in retirement. Visconti told the BBC Bowie is happy and well, but that he’s surprised by Bowie’s choice for the first single, as it’s more “reflective” than the rest of the album. (Though the cover designer says the album overall is “contemplative“). A short analysis of the first single release, its lyrics and film clip, might help us anticipate what is to come.
“Had to get the train from Potzdamer Platz.”
Low, Heroes and Lodger made up Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy” in the late ’70s. Bowie escaped to Berlin after a period of cocaine-fuelled paranoia in Hollywood. As Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton explained in Uncut in 2001, Bowie went on to make rock history in Berlin, fusing “punk with electronica, black magic with white noise, amphetamine psychosis with spiritual healing”. In the surreal clip for Where Are We Now? lyrical references to Berlin are backgrounded by grainy, passing images of Berlin landmarks, including the East Side Gallery (a 1.3 km section of the crumbling Wall).
On a micro-scale, Bowie is remembering a time of creative stimulation. He said in 2001: “Berlin has the strange ability to make you write about only the important things”. But he is not asking “where am I now?” but “where are we”? We are “walking the dead”, in the song, but the “dead” goes beyond the obvious layers of horror in Berlin’s history. Helen Pidd in the Guardian informs us that Bowie’s use of “The Dschungel” is in reference to the 1970s West Berlin nightclub where Bowie hung out with Iggy Pop et al. It’s an era he, and we, have moved on from. That particular version of Berlin is dead too. Perhaps “nothing has changed, and everything has changed”, as Bowie sang in Sunday (from Heathen).
At the end of the clip, an aged, sad and defiantly plain Bowie stands looking over detritus in a dark apartment, also potentially in Berlin. He surveys the mess with a notebook in his hand. It’s not the first time he has addressed “mess” of the personal and historical past in his work (think Ashes to Ashes). He has also in the past indulged in a retrospective plethora of chameleonic self-images, as in the clips for Underground and Fame ’90.
But it seems now he is taking a laid-back, though melancholic, survey of where he is, and where we are, among it all. The bag at his feet, in the apartment, says “thank you for shopping with us” and it almost looks as though he’s stepped out of it, aware that he is re-emerging not just as an artist but inevitably a product. He wears a T-shirt from Norway (“The song of Norway”), so is also branded as a tourist and a traveller. This also raises questions in regards to the Berlin aspects, because aren’t the landmarks mentioned also commercial drawcards and spectacles? “Where are we now?” is also “what have we done with the past?” and “is this way really best?”
“As long as there’s you. As long as there’s me.”
As in the song Thursday’s Child, “you” and “me” are older now; there’s less of a sense of what we “could” or “can” be (as in Heroes), but what we have been, and what we have left. The clip for Thursday’s Child focused on a mundane domestic scene: Bowie and partner brush their teeth before bed, while he sings along to the tune in his head. Both his and his partner’s youthful selves appear on the other side of the mirror, and he looks at his young lover with melancholy yearning.
In Where Are We Now? he sings about a “man lost in time”, but as in Thursday’s Child the man is also lost in a kind of mundanity (“near KaDeWe”, he sings, the department store which was emblematic of the economic prosperity of West Berlin). But the second-half of the song does present a humble, warm recognition of what “we” can be grateful for among the clutter (of the past, of the present, of the dead): the sun, the rain, fire, you and me.
“You know, you know, you know” the whole album is going to be something thoughtful, layered, light and dark. As a whole it may shine a light upon the inscrutable objects in that dark Berlin apartment — a pile of old books, a giant blue lightbulb, an ear, a dog — that Bowie seems to survey towards the end, notebook in hand, with a look on his face that asks: “am I ready?”