"It is a quivering ghost of a Bowie song, the imprint of his fabulous past gently laid over a forlorn, elegiac yet life-affirming drape of meditations and reveries about missing the old Europe and, possibly, youth. It is becoming of the man, and of the star." - Chris Roberts, Quietus
"I'm not an innovator. I'm really just a Photostat machine. I pour out what has already been fed in." - David Bowie
Loading article content
We are closing in on the present now. Closing in on an ending. Almost finished. We've travelled from the days before rock and roll, the days before me, possibly the days before you too, to the day before yesterday. How far have we come? Almost a lifetime. Or getting on for it. We are all older but probably no wiser.
So let's console ourselves with a return from the dead. Or near enough. The unexpected reappearance of the prince across the water, last seen in this place back in 1974.
The first time I heard David Bowie's comeback single in January of last year - after almost a decade of radio silence - it sounded such a frail, fragile thing. A diminished return. But maybe I was projecting the rumours of his ill health that had filled the vacuum of his long silence. True, his voice sounds a little ragged, a little cracked on Where Are We Now? and the tune seems at first listen slight and thin. Yet it's a song that grows and grows. The surprise of its appearance was fun, but in the end it was more than strong enough to bear the weight of our expectation.
It's a song full of ghosts. Bowie's ghosts. The ghosts of his Berlin era. "It's a Bowie from the present remembering a Bowie from the past imagining a Bowie from the future leading to a brand new Bowie, pretending to keep it secret, and effortlessly reaching everyone who is interested," Paul Morley said when it came out.
But they're my ghosts too. And probably yours. Ghosts of the Cold War, ghosts of our pop culture past. A recorded seance of who we once were and what we once believed. As the man himself says, just walking the dead.
We are older now. David, you, me. And pop is older. It's in its seventh decade. So maybe it doesn't matter any more. Maybe it can't. Certainly we don't invest in it the way we once did. Does that suggest we've lost something? Or does it suggest we've simply grown up? "Please don't put your life in the hands/ Of a Rock 'n' Roll band who'll throw it all away", as someone called Noel once wrote.
That's probably a healthy thing. It means that we can find the humour in Bowie's intervention in the independence debate (yes, he's allowed his opinion but we're allowed to point out the contradiction of saying, "Stay with us, Scotland" when he's not been resident in the UK for a long time).
But the getting of wisdom also entails a loss of innocence. And now, in this year and last year and maybe a few years before that, it's hard to see pop the way we did in the fifties and sixties and seventies and maybe - via rave culture - as late as the 1990s. As something revolutionary, as something that could cultivate and engender change.
Where Are We Now? is obviously a lament. But for what? For him, I guess, his past. And for the rest of us? A lament for lost youth of course. That's inevitable. But maybe, too, a lament for the desire that has powered so many of the songs that we've talked about here over the last 61 weeks, a desire for a new world they might have offered us, even if it only exists for three minutes.
And yet ... There's a pre-pop world and a post-pop world. We now live in the latter. Lots of things haven't changed. Lots of things are worse. But some are better. Our acceptance of otherness. Our attitudes to race and sex and sexuality. And they have changed mostly for the better since the 1950s. Are they perfect? No, of course not. But we now live in a world where you can't put cards in the window saying "No blacks, No Irish, no dogs" and where to be gay is not to be criminalised.
And pop did that. Or helped in the process. Bowie was part of that process. For some of us a major part.
Where are we now? In a different place. Nothing's ended just yet.
See you next week?
Do I Wanna Know?, Arctic Monkeys
Black Skinhead, Kanye West
Vocal, Pet Shop Boys
Lose My Breath, Yuck
Drone Logic, Daniel Avery
Get Lucky, Daft Punk
NME Single of the Year: Get Lucky, Daft Punk
Festive 50 winner Two Bridges, Wedding Present
And the Best-Selling Single of 2013: Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke