Happy Halloween: there’s a new David Bowie video! As with his excellent album The Next Day itself, the video for James Murphy’s remix of “Love is Lost” arrives unexpectedly and with a minimum of fanfare: Bowie wrote, shot and edited it all himself, apparently over the course of last weekend. The video apparently cost Bowie all of $12.99 to shoot, which only goes to show that you don’t necessarily need a massive budget if you have interesting ideas. And our hero most certainly has those — the video finds him revisiting the idea of confronting himself, a constant theme throughout The Next Day, and is a remarkably bleak and discomforting viewing experience. As ever, there’s a heap of fascinating imagery to unpick, so join us as we (over)analyze the hell out of it.
The video starts with this image, which is the first of many to hark back to its creator’s past. In this case, the shot evokes “Thursday’s Child,” another introspective song that dealt with advancing age. But as we’ll see, it’s also the first of many images to be subverted and decayed by time. The “Thursday’s Child” video found Bowie confronting advancing years in the company of a beautiful woman in a well-appointed apartment; here, he’s alone, washing his hands in a nondescript bathroom like a latter-day Lady Macbeth.
Hands and hands. These cracked puppet hands belong to a familiar figure, who we’ll meet in due course.
And these belong to our hero himself. Anyone care to guess at the symbolism here?
The image of a face projected onto a blank dummy has been another recurrent one around The Next Day. It featured prominently in the video for lead single “Where Are We Now,” made by video artist Tony Oursler (who’s known for this sort of thing) and it returns here. The idea of projecting a face onto another face has a particular resonance, of course, in the case of man who’s worn so many guises throughout his career. The implication here seems to be that behind all the characters, there’s a blank canvas — a remarkable statement of self-doubt from an artist who has nothing left to prove, and perhaps something that goes some way toward explaining the air of melancholy that hangs around much of this record.
When The Next Day was released, I wrote about how interesting it is that Bowie hasn’t created another character to inhabit for this record — rather, this time around, he is the character. The whole album is full of references to Bowies past and present, as if he was taking the Burroughsian cut-up technique he’s so fond of and applying it to his own image. And sure enough, fragments of his past turn up throughout this video. For a start, is that a Ziggy Stardust-era jumpsuit?
“Love is Lost” seems to be an evocation of one of the darker periods of its author’s youth, namely his mid-’70s time in LA: “Your country’s new, your friends are new/ Your house, and even your eyes are new/ Your maid is new, your accent, too/ But your fear is as old as the world.” As Bowie sings these words, the camera zooms back from a pair of very familiar eyes — one pupil pinned, the other dilated — to reveal perhaps the most sinister image in the whole video: a strange mannequin of his Thin White Duke incarnation. The image of himself as a broken puppet certainly seems apposite to that time of his career, given his well-documented and herculean coke habit at the time.
The next shot finds the puppet’s hands covering Bowie’s eyes. Hands and eyes, again. (Also fascinating: the $12.99 budget for this video cost apparently covered the cost of the thumb drive onto which it was transferred when it was done — which means the sinister Thin White Duke homunculus already existed. Did Bowie just have it kicking around his apartment?! It’s terrifying!)
It’s not just imagery that evokes Bowie’s past, either. What you can’t hear here is that Murphy’s remix drops in the distinctive melody from “Ashes to Ashes” here. This sort of self-referentialism has been another prominent theme on The Next Day, but the choice of “Ashes to Ashes” seems a particularly interesting one given that song was already self-referential — its lyrics referenced “Space Oddity” era character Major Tom, while also discussing the legacy of the Thin White Duke years, and the struggle to stay clean. Layers upon layers…
Here’s “Ashes to Ashes” again, this time evoked visually. The outfit the dummy is wearing here is reminiscent of the Pierrot costume Bowie wore in that song’s memorable video — except, of course, that where that costume was white, this is black.
And here we have the connection made explicit — the Thin White Duke carrying a blank-faced Pierrot. Whatever’s going on here, it’s not particularly pleasant.
The song’s title, with the verb removed, so all we have is two incarnations of Bowie standing with single words: the Thin White Duke puppet, with what appears to be a bitterly ironic “LOVE,” and the present day Bowie, almost entirely disappearing into the shadows, holding “LOST.”
The song’s chorus asks repeatedly, “What have you done?” And if there’s any guilt to be assigned, perhaps this brief shot assigns it back to the man behind the masks. Because look whose hand is moving the puppet’s: why, it’s Bowie himself, the ultimate (cracked) actor behind all the actions.
The briefest, weirdest of shots: a camera flash. Whatever Bowie’s indiscretions, they were always committed in the public eye.
And the final shot: an empty bathroom. Out, damn spot!
But there’s one more thing to consider before we get out of affectionate over-analyzing mode: the fact that Bowie chose to make a video for a remix of this song, not the original. The idea seems a perfect fit for a record that’s been all about deconstructing its creator’s career. Or maybe our hero just liked the remix better. We’ll never know, because he’s still not talking. But then again, that’s what makes speculating all the more enjoyable.