He lives, he sings and he's recording again. After a career of full of surprises, it perhaps shouldn't be a shock that David Bowie released his first new recording in a decade on his 66th birthday on Tuesday, a song called Where Are We Now?
What's more, he's offering not just a single but the promise of an album of new material in March called The Next Day.
A bruised, sadly beautiful, contemplative song which does that very rare Bowie thing of looking back.
It's fair to say Bowie was assumed to have retired. Ill health (a heart attack in 2004), no tours since the 2004 shows were cancelled, no album since 2003, the last of his public appearances being in 2007 and the fact that his second child, Alexandria, was born in 2000 all suggested a veil being drawn across a career that began in the Mod years of the mid-'60s.
But here is Where Are We Now?, a bruised, sadly beautiful, contemplative song which does that very rare Bowie thing of looking back. In this case it's back to Berlin in the late 1970s when, physically and emotionally spent after a decade of constant reinvention, mind-warping fame and more cocaine than is ever healthy – a “man lost in time”, to quote from the new song – he regained sanity, health and his musical inspiration “on Nurnberger Strasse”.
In the song, Bowie sounds older, certainly, maybe even more fragile. It's reflective and overlaid with a kind of sadness that's not exactly a farewell but certainly leaves room for us to think that The Next Day may be his last recorded work. “As long as there's sun, as long as there's rain ... as long as there's me, as long as there's you.”
The film clip, where Bowie's lived-in, weary face is projected onto the body of a furry toy, has scattered mementos and, projected behind him, grainy footage of Berlin decades ago and new, almost home-video shots. It's odd and slightly disturbing but compelling, in typical Bowie fashion.
Why does this matter? After all, he hasn't had a hit in decades and this song isn't going to challenge Pink or Kanye West for attention. It matters because, like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Bowie has not only earned the right to be listened to after a lifetime of creative reward but he still offers something fresh and of his time – not our time, but his – in a way that speaks volumes.