Aladdin Sane, David Bowie, Haydn, Hurt, Johnny Cash, Let's Dance, Life On Mars, Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, Our Price, Shostakovich, Solitary Man, Soundgarden, The Man Comes Around, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, The Rolling Stones, Thunderbird, U2
It is rare indeed when a large number of people get genuinely excited about a new piece of music. Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony came with a large burden of expectation attached, and the late works of Haydn were eagerly awaited, but when was the last time something crept into the general consciousness?
Well, it happened yesterday, and the interweb was all abuzz, rentanoises babbling incessantly about what it all might mean. Yes, David Bowie had released a single, emerging from the shadows for the first time in a decade, and with an album to follow, too. It is extraordinary how relevant Bowie remains, despite the fact that most people would be hard pressed to name a single song of his after Let’s Dance. Can you? I can, but only because I spent part of my youth working in Our Price, which tells you just how long ago it was.
However good or bad the new material, though, what we all really want from Bowie is less of the experimentation with electronica, dance loops, ambient and so on, and a return to the songwriting which made his name forty years ago. Although I am not hugely taken with what I have heard of the new song, at least it sounds like a return to his earlier style in some ways, and that cannot be a bad thing.
There is a patch of albums in the early 70s, before Germany, dance music and the drugs, which takes some beating – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory – pooling the talents not only of Bowie but also of some great musicians and players. They also showcase Bowie at what I believe was the height of his songwriting ability, taking grand themes and the everyday and mixing and matching them together in dispersed narratives, over music which could rock with the rockiest, veer wildly towards the atonal, or build from the smallest idea to something grandiose and wonderful.
Of course, the curse of the rock musician is that you are doomed to play the same songs forever, and people do not want you to change. The Rolling Stones clearly have no problem with this, but Bowie disbanded the Spiders from Mars, and struck off in new directions, uniquely paying almost no attention whatsoever to his public perception. I know that Madonna supposedly trots from style to style, but where Bowie explores areas which interest him, Madge merely displays indecent haste in trying to hitch herself to the latest bandwagon.
Where the new Bowie single is so tantalising, however, is that it promises something genuinely great. Rock music is such a new genre, only just 60 or so years old, and so resolutely geared towards the here-today-gone-tomorrow tastes of the young that we have yet to hear what great artists put out in their old age, and there are very few promises of that situation changing. Mick and Keef seem unlikely to pen some masterwork on what life has meant to them, how it is to be nearing 70, intimations of mortality and all that, but Bowie is the kind of artist, writer and – most importantly – thinker who might just be able to pull it off.
Actually, I tell a lie. We have heard somebody sing of what life is like from the far end, and, although often in other people’s words, it is something unique. Johnny Cash’s last albums, especially Solitary Man and The Man Comes Around are extraordinary works, brilliant not just for the depth and resonance of Cash’s voice, although it gets tired towards the end, but also for the extraordinarily left-field choice of songs made by his producer, Rick Rubin. Cash sings songs by Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, U2, giving them a new meaning which is entirely his own, but it is his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt which remains in the memory, the video showing the ruined House Of Cash as his ill wife watches him. There is one almost unbearably poignant moment when he closes the piano lid and runs his hands across it, as if to say goodbye for the last time. It is something very special.
Fingers crossed that Bowie may be about to put out something similar. I fear that he will not, for we must, as always, be careful what we wish for, but just the possibility is enough to make me hesitantly excited, and millions of others are drawn into this music, and that cannot be bad. Besides, if the new album is terrible, there is always Life On Mars.