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.
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.