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If David Bowie really has returned to form, I’ll cry

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

9 March 2013

9:00 AM

I haven’t heard the David Bowie album yet, but the Amazon order is in and Postie has been alerted as to the importance of the delivery. How often these days do any of us feel so excited about an imminent release? The ten-year gap between Bowie albums might have something to do with it, but the 30-year gap between decent Bowie albums is probably more relevant. And all this is down to the excellence of the single. Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet wept the first time he heard ‘Where Are We Now?’, and I was blubbing well into the song’s third or fourth week on Radio 2.

Nostalgia for lost youth isn’t exactly a new theme, but the song’s grandeur and strange fragility seem to speak directly to the slightly melancholy middle-aged male, which is pretty much all of us. Convention would demand that after the second chorus you would get a third, which would edge the song perilously close to anthem territory. But, no, we cut straight to the coda, so after a long, slow build-up and a peak that is over before you know it, the song actually seems to end too quickly. Anyone who sees a parallel with life itself may already have celebrated their 50th birthday.

So our expectations are raised, possibly to be dashed, as so often before. The satirical website The Daily Mash got it spot-on last week. ‘David Bowie fans are readying themselves to pretend that his new album is as good as when he was good,’ they wrote. ‘With reviewers giving the album four stars before they actually listened to it, fans are writing preprepared phrases to explain why they cannot hum any of the songs.’

It has been the lot of the Bowie fan for more years than we care to think about to buy each new album in the pathetic hope that it truly is the ‘return to form’ all reviewers have decreed it to be. In this sense, Bowie has been to rock music what Woody Allen has been to film or Martin Amis to the novel. Some of his later albums you might have played as many as three times before putting them up on the shelf for ever, possibly to be eaten by neighbouring CDs, which at least would save you the bother of having to decide what to do with them. For however many rotten albums you eventually lug down to the charity shop, you tend to hang on to the ones by your favourite artists, even if you would throw yourself out of a window rather than listen to them again. I even have Black Tie White Noise somewhere.

So maybe a decade’s holiday wasn’t such a bad idea after all. The defining quality of ‘Where Are We Now?’ is that it isn’t much like any song Bowie has previously recorded. It doesn’t sound like anybody else, either. The same could be said of the new single, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, which has made itself known via an equally memorable promo video, starring Tilda Swinton and her cheekbones, and the pouting gender-fluid model Andrej Pejic, who may or may not be related to the 1970s Stoke City left-back Mike Pejic. Like its predecessor, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ has a recognisable tune, but not one we recognise from his old hits. It’s as fresh as fresh can be. This seems to me a remarkable achievement for a pop star of mature years.

For as even their most fervent fans would concede, most musicians’ range tends to contract after they reach a certain age. I yield to no one in my admiration for Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, but after three months digesting his recent album Sunken Condos (Reprise), even I am beginning to wonder whether I could not have spent the time more profitably. Beautifully played though they may be, most of the songs sound like infinitesimally slight variations on all his previous songs. Not only has he shut himself in a small room and lost the key, but he also doesn’t seem to mind that he is in that room, or even to have noticed.

So hooray for Mr Bowie, although obviously we should suspend complete admiration until we have listened to the damn thing once or twice. On second thoughts, why listen to it at all? If looking forward to it is this much fun, why risk the disappointment? I’ll let you know when I’ve worked it out for myself.

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