Oursler had previously worked with Bowie on the promo video for Little Wonder, from his 1997 album, Earthling. That same year, Bowie had used some of Oursler’s creations for his 50th birthday party – what Oursler has called “doppelgänger electronic effigies”: hand-sewn dolls onto whose blank faces footage of real-life faces are projected. For Where Are We Now?, Bowie suggested taking them out of storage for use in the clip. “At first I wondered if I’d be able to live up to a project like this, given the gravity of the situation, the surprise of coming back after ten years of silence,” Oursler admitted to Uncut magazine. “But I listened very carefully to what David was saying and he already had this crystallised, fully articulated image for the video in his head… It was wonderful to see the birth of this song riding in on some kind of electronic magic carpet in my crazy studio.”
Shot over two days, the video largely featured a Bowie doll sitting next to another doll, in front of projections of the city he once called home. The set was festooned with carefully placed items that sent fans scurrying to decode their meaning in relation to Bowie’s life – an opening shot which lingers on a diamond; a piece of Berlin footage featuring a dog strolling down the street. Some viewers thought that Oursler’s wife, the artist Jacqueline Humphries, who played the part of Bowie’s doll companion, bore a resemblance to Bowie’s long-term assistant, Coco Schwab. (Though he acknowledged the likeness, Visconti couldn’t confirm whether it had led Bowie to cast her: “I read this on the internet,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.)
Humphries made for a dispassionate counterpart to a sometimes pensive-seeming Bowie, who sings while the song’s lyrics appear on the screen; his aged presence added extra gravitas to their meaning. “I did weep, actually. I’ll confess,” Visconti recalled of the first time he watched the video. “But it’s more about being at a certain place in your life, where everything was really good and happening. I think that evokes nostalgic feelings in people.”
The release: “I couldn’t sleep. I stared at my computer until the first person realised it was simply dropped in iTunes”
Even with Where Are We Now? complete, few people knew of its existence. Speaking to The Times after the song’s release, Visconti revealed how much of a struggle he’d found it to keep not only the song, but also the brand-new album Bowie was sitting on, under wraps: “I couldn’t sleep. I’d kept a secret for two years, I knew the release date for two months, it was a countdown.” With just one day to go, Bowie and Visconti took to emailing each other with to-the-minute updates until, at 5am UK time, on 8 January 2013 – midnight where Bowie was, in New York – the song and its video appeared on streaming and download services. “When it was finally released, I stared at my computer for 15 minutes until the first person realised it was simply dropped in iTunes,” Visconti later recalled.
A few select radio stations and media personalities had been tipped off by Bowie’s team to check their emails at the time of the song’s release. Almost immediately, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme broadcast the news to the world: Bowie was back.
Led by a stealth campaign which The Quietus observed had been “presented and choreographed with matchless elegance, cool and subtlety”, Where Are We Now? shot to the top of the iTunes charts that same day. Trailing the even more shocking revelation that Bowie had a whole new album’s worth of material, titled The Next Day, due to land exactly two months down the line, the song also went Top 10 around Europe, reaching No.6 in the UK and becoming Bowie’s first UK Top 10 hit since the release of Black Tie White Noise’s lead single, Jump They Say, 20 years earlier.
The artwork: “He was telling me about how isolated he felt, and that was the basis”
Hailed by The Daily Telegraph as “the most surprising, perfect and welcome comeback in rock history”, Where Are We Now? “posed a question Bowie wouldn’t have asked in the same way in the 1970s”, wrote Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson, who declared it the website’s Best New Track, and concluded, “Back then he might have expected an answer, but now he’s old enough to understand you never really figure it out.”
Listening to Bowie attempt to figure his past out on record, however, was part of Where Are We Now?’s allure – and the mood pervaded not only the song and its video, but also its artwork: a photo of Bowie live on stage during the Soul Tour portion of his Diamond Dogs Tour of 1974, during which material from the Diamond Dogs album began to give way to early outings for songs from his upcoming Young Americans album. Taken during a short residency at Radio City Music Hall, in New York, the black-and-white photo was simply flipped upside down, with “Where Are We Now?” and Bowie’s name laid over the top – a precursor of the approach that designer Jonathan Barnbrook would give to one of the most surprising David Bowie album covers of all time, when he recontextualised the “Heroes” sleeve for The Next Day.
Speaking to NME, Barnbrook, who would also go on to oversee the artwork for Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, explained how the 1974 photo paved the way for The Next Day’s design: “The starting point was an image he had of this concert he did at Radio City. He was telling me about how isolated he felt at that time, and that was the basis of the feeling he wanted.”
The meaning: “It’s a very reflective track for David… it’s very melancholy”
Praised by fans and critics alike, Where Are We Now? proved that, while Bowie was comfortable living a more private life away from the media glare, his supporters would always be there to embrace him. And if the recurring refrain “Just walking the dead” suggested that Bowie wasn’t only dealing with ghosts of his past, but also challenging recent rumours surrounding his health, the closing lines, “As long as there’s sun/… As long as there’s rain/… As long as there’s fire/… As long as there’s me/As long as there’s you,” made for a hopeful end that looked ahead to brighter times – a reunion between Bowie and his supporters, reflected in the reunification of Berlin.
Though there was much to read into Where Are We Now?, Bowie himself was, as ever, reluctant to directly explain the song’s meaning, letting confidants such as Tony Visconti elaborate on their own thoughts. “I think it’s a very reflective track for David,” the producer told BBC News. “He certainly is looking back on his Berlin period and it evokes this feeling… it’s very melancholy.”
However, when asked by novelist Rick Moody to provide a list of words that would describe The Next Day as a whole, Bowie delivered 42 words with no elaboration. When observers noticed that the list could be broken up into blocks of three, each block corresponding, in order, with the lyrical themes of each of the album’s 14 songs, the words Bowie seemed to chose to for Where Are We Now? were “Mauer” (German for “wall”), “Interface” and “Flittings”.
The legacy: “It was a very smart move, linking the past with the future”
Despite being an unqualified success, Tony Visconti initially had reservations about releasing Where Are We Now? as Bowie’s comeback single. Compared to the rest of the songs they had recorded for The Next Day, it was an anomaly. But he came to realise that Bowie “understood immediately – before I even did – that people had to deal with the shock that he was back. That, in itself, is news breaking. So like the song, maybe he was easing people in with a slow ballad.”
Speaking to BBC News, Visconti elaborated: “I thought to myself, Why is David coming out with this very slow, albeit beautiful ballad. Why is he doing this? He should come out with a bang.” The producer eventually realised exactly what Bowie had done: “But he is a master of his own life. I think this was a very smart move, linking the past with the future.”