David Bowie: Back to His Mysterious Best

After two decades of restless wandering, the Thin White Duke is back to his mysterious best

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It was the quietest of comebacks. on Jan. 8 at the stroke of midnight, with no warning and without having performed or spoken in public for many years, David Bowie released a song through iTunes. The song, “Where Are We Now?” is a mournful, tender ballad that name-checks many of the places in Berlin where Bowie hung out in the 1970s, when he was arguably at his most creative. Now 66, Bowie—who mostly disappeared from public view around 2006, two years after a heart attack and amid rumors that he was terminally ill—ends the song with a simple expression of gratitude for being alive and not being alone: “As long as there’s me,” he sings, “as long as there’s you.”

Besides also releasing a video for “Where Are We Now?” that hit the same notes of reminiscence and humility, Bowie said nothing. There was no press conference to announce a world tour. There were no interviews, no marketing campaign, not so much as a tweet. There was just the promise on his website of an album to come in March. On Feb. 26, again with no prior fanfare, he released the thrilling, unsettling video for the more up-tempo second single, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” which pairs Bowie with his female doppelgänger, the actor Tilda Swinton. A few days later, iTunes unexpectedly began streaming the album, The Next Day, for free before its official release on March 12. The reviews have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Still, Bowie has said nothing in public.

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Smart move. With each year that went by with barely a sign of life from Bowie—no concerts, no red-carpet appearances with his wife (the Somali-born model Iman), few paparazzi shots, no movie cameos, no exhibitions of his paintings—a sense of mystery steadily grew around him. What was he up to? Was that heart attack he suffered backstage in 2004 the first sign of an irreversible decline? Would he ever produce any more music? Day by day, he became ever more unknowable. And by staying silent and invisible, he gradually hauled back the magical sense of distance that made him the strangest and most compelling rock star of the 1970s, someone who taught the likes of Prince and Madonna lessons in how to shift visual and musical styles and keep people surprised, guessing and wanting more.

They were lessons he himself seemed to have forgotten for a long stretch—for most of the 1980s, all of the 1990s and some of the following decade, in fact. There were too many records lacking good songs, too many middle-of-the-road concerts. (I went to one in London in 1990 that stopped for an intermission!) For Bowie, coming across as all-accessible was a near fatal career shift. This was a rock star who, perhaps more than any other, had hidden behind bizarre, intimidating invented personas. Kids in 1972 may have yearned to know who the bone-thin, made-up, sexually ambiguous Ziggy Stardust character really was—but they may not have wanted, deep down, to find out. The yearning to know was pleasure enough.

Bowie’s last recording until now was released in 2003: Reality, an inoffensive rock record free of riveting melodies or mysteries. His new one, The Next Day, is great. It feels unrushed, the work of many years of thought and honing. (Musicians who worked on it, including his longtime producer, Tony Visconti, have said it took two years to make; they reportedly signed nondisclosure agreements to help keep the recording sessions secret.) In his seventh decade, Bowie makes no attempt on The Next Day to seem young; the songs are full of moments of vulnerability and frailty, and they’re all the more powerful for that. “Here I am, not quite dying,” he almost shouts on the opening and title track.

(VIDEO: David Bowie Releases First New Song in 10 Years)

In spite of the first single’s gentleness, The Next Day is—as Visconti has said—fundamentally a rock album. Many of the songs are insistent and occasionally menacing. Messy guitars rip in and out of the bass-led saxophone thump of “Dirty Boys.” There’s more threat and big bass in “Love Is Lost”: “It’s the darkest hour, you’re 22, the voice of youth, the hour of dread.” When he first attracted wide notice in 1969, scoring his first British hit with “Space Oddity,” Bowie instantly appealed to annoyed, alienated kids who felt he somehow understood them. “Love Is Lost” suggests he’s still speaking to the age group that made him a star—or at least he’s thinking of them.

On “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” he revisits a preoccupation from his own youth: fame. In the video, two androgynous models—chosen for their uncanny resemblance to Bowie—portray rock stars who move in next door to a staid married couple played by Bowie and Swinton, invading their home, their sleep, their desires and finally their identities. “We will never be rid of these stars, but I hope they live forever,” sings Bowie, a man who spent his entire youth chasing fame and who played no small part in influencing our fame-obsessed culture. Directed by Floria Sigismondi, the video captures the song’s urgent erotic longing; it’s as brilliantly strange as the landmark promo for Bowie’s 1980 single “Ashes to Ashes,” which made a case for music videos as an art form before MTV even went on air.

The man who by then had spent a decade experimenting with various identities grew up plain old David Jones, a middle-class boy from London’s suburbs who changed his stage name to Bowie in the mid-1960s because Davy Jones of the Monkees was beginning to find fame. The young Bowie chased stardom, trying whatever might work: R&B, hippie folk, a sped-up voice on a novelty track called “The Laughing Gnome.” It was Ziggy, the alien messiah rock star and protagonist of the 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, who finally proved to be Bowie’s vehicle to stardom. His first appearance as Ziggy on the BBC’s Top of the Pops weekly music show, singing “Starman” from Ziggy Stardust, startled millions of viewers in Britain—it helped that he lovingly put his arm around his (male) guitarist—and succeeded in what the lyrics of “Starman” threatened: “He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.”

(VIDEO: David Bowie and Tilda Swinton Make Sweet Music (Video) Together)

Having deepened the sexual confusion of a generation, Bowie dropped the Ziggy persona—along with glam rock—and by 1975’s Young Americans he was crooning what he called plastic soul. By the mid-1970s he had all but morphed into a character heralded on 1976’s Station to Station: the Thin White Duke, addicted to cocaine, paranoid, skeletal and prone to wondering aloud about the upside to fascism. Living mostly in Los Angeles during this period, he was deeply unhappy, as he later said, and improbably hardworking, producing more than an album a year, on average, through the decade. Possibly heading for an early death from cocaine abuse, Bowie fled L.A. and his home in Switzerland, where he had moved in 1976, for the comparatively ascetic calm of Berlin. There he worked with producer Brian Eno on a trilogy of albums—the experimental, sometimes esoteric Low, “Heroes” and Lodger—that many critics consider his creative high point.

Bowie’s prolific output in the 1970s forms the burning heart of his career, both musically and visually. No other rock performer had embraced fashion and theater with such enthusiasm. In a dress-down era of jeans, beards and denim jackets, Bowie as Ziggy went onstage in heels, makeup, boas and avant-garde costumes made for him by young designers like Japan’s Kansai Yamamoto. Bowie was wearing tight woolen bodysuits missing the left arm and the right leg and exposing much of the right butt cheek long before some of his most obvious students (we’re looking at you, Lady Gaga) were born.

Those still surprising ensembles are a key part of the exhibit “David Bowie Is,” which opens March 23 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. (The show has broken the museum’s record for advance ticket sales.) Bowie has given the museum full access to his archive, which includes 75,000 items; along with the outfits and previously unseen photographs, the curators have dug up notebooks with the scribbled lyrics of some of his best songs, including perhaps his finest six minutes on record, the 1977 tale of young lovers meeting next to the Berlin Wall, “Heroes.”

(LIST: Top 10 David Bowie Songs)

But you hit 1983 in the show’s catalog and something happens: the suits. Starting with the videos for that year’s album, Let’s Dance, and his Serious Moonlight tour, these outfits—a kind of neocolonialist take on a zoot suit—mark a public turning away from what we previously knew as the Bowie-esque style (although he had worn some natty suits during his soul stage). Shoulder pads bulge Dynasty-style from the red suit he wore on his hugely profitable, hugely overblown Glass Spider tour in 1987. It’s hard not to flinch at the sight.

And in those years, it was hard not to flinch at the music. For all of Bowie’s repeated insistence from an early age that he wasn’t a good musician or even a musician at all—that he was really an actor—he’s always risen and fallen on the strength of his songwriting and recordings. Music has been the problem that’s burdened him since 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), which is widely considered his last great record. Let’s Dance blended the dance-friendly sensibility of producer Nile Rodgers, some of Bowie’s most soaring vocals and searing, bluesy guitar riffs from Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s a superfun mainstream rock album and still Bowie’s most commercially successful record. His next two, Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987), were the worst of his career: bombastic and confused attempts to satisfy his creative soul but also to take advantage of new opportunities to make a lot of money from stadium rock.

His career never fully recovered, even though moments of brilliance flashed in some of the records that followed. (His soundtrack for the British television series The Buddha of Suburbia, from 1993, is a modest high point.) A nadir was 1997’s Earthling, which found Bowie, then 50, trying clumsily to appropriate a then au courant form of British dance music called drum ‘n’ bass—and, in a larger sense, to claw back his hold on youth culture. The same year, Bowie sold the rights to the following 10 years’ worth of royalties from most of his songs. The issue of “Bowie bonds” netted him $55 million up front and did his reputation as a countercultural figure no good.

Meanwhile, a contemporary and hero of his was showing that he still knew how it was done. Months after the release of Earthling, Bob Dylan released Time Out of Mind. It was packed full of controlled but anguished songs about the challenges that come with no longer being a young man—something Bowie seemed to be struggling with too. In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, Bowie said, “Now his music has such resonance that when I first put his new album on, I thought I should just give up.” It seemed clear what he was thinking, though he left the thought unspoken: Why can’t I do that any longer?

Now we know: he can. If there’s a key to The Next Day‘s triumph—and to every move Bowie has made in public since Jan. 8—it’s his willingness to look back without lapsing into maudlin nostalgia or a rote rehashing of past glories. Many of the songs on the album make direct reference to some of his strongest work from the 1970s—there’s the drumbeat that opens the Ziggy Stardust album! There’s a guitar riff from Lodger!—but the gazing back feels like a frank reckoning instead of a sign of defeat. Rather miraculously, Bowie has picked up where he left off when he was last genuinely great. This is a record that could have been made in 1981. It’s so much better to have it late than never.

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