The seemingly inevitable leak of pre-release music — or indeed of information related to his return to the studio — never materialized, and so Bowie was able to do what he's done best over the last five decades when he revealed Tuesday that "The Next Day" is due out in March.
He surprised us.
Unlike fellow pop-star enigmas such as Prince, Bowie actually is on Twitter, issuing pronouncements to the 66,000 followers he’s amassed since 2009 about everything from deluxe reissues to his son's wedding. And it's one of the platforms he (or anyway his people) used early Tuesday to direct attention to “Where Are We Now?”, the new album's lead single.
Bowie's tweet didn't tease fans with a stray factoid about the song or with a seconds-long snippet, as is customary these days. That's the route the soul singer Maxwell and the emo band Paramore took only hours before Bowie's announcement, pressing their fans into service as builders of social-media buzz. Instead, Bowie delivered "Where Are We Now?" in its entirety on iTunes and Vimeo; he wham-bammed us all at once.
Produced by his longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, Bowie’s song at first extends his old unknowability. A luscious, slow-moving ballad overlaid with a jumble of place-names from Berlin (where Bowie recorded a string of acclaimed late-’70s albums), “Where Are We Now?” comes on like a hazy daydream. It seems in no hurry to reveal itself or what big thoughts Bowie might have been thinking over the course of the decade he’s been away.
The accompanying music video, with moving images of the singer’s face atop a stationary stuffed animal, is weirder still, the telltale handiwork of the multimedia artist Tony Oursler. Keep listening, though, and the fog burns off until you’re left with a surprisingly straightforward — and heartbreakingly tender — rumination on age.
“A man lost in time near KaDaWe,” Bowie sings, referring to the enormous Berlin department store, “just walking the dead.” In the video he grimaces at that point, as though he were making a painful admission, before easing into the open-ended chorus: “Where are we now? / Where are we now? / The moment you know, you know, you know.”
Later he seeks reassurance, like many old men, in nature — “As long as there’s sun / As long as there’s rain / As long as there’s fire” — but can’t quite give up on the here-and-now, adding exhaustedly, “As long as there’s me / As long as there’s you.”
The song is a beautiful but unexpected look back from a visionary long obsessed with what’s next. And though its title seems to promise more horizon-scanning, “The Next Day’s” arresting cover art complicates that idea: It’s a reproduction of the iconic sleeve of Bowie’s 1977 classic “Heroes” (the best-known of his so-called Berlin Trilogy), with the earlier album’s title crossed out and the singer’s portrait obscured by a large white box.
Is Bowie the shapeshifter finally celebrating his past? Or is he confronting the questions that lie beyond? As they used to say in the pre-Twitter era, stay tuned for more details.