We thought we'd lost him once, when he appeared to retire after 2003's Reality, but then he went and floored the world (and not for the first time) with surprise return The Next Day in 2013. This was Bowie as bonus, a second act no one had expected, not even the musicians closest to him, who leapt when the call came.
The comeback continued into this year when Bowie released Blackstar on Friday 8 January, his 69th birthday. It's an outrageous record for an artist at that stage of his career, the point when any of his contemporaries would be releasing covers albums or wan retreads of former glories. Blackstar pushed Bowie forward again, into experimental (but ever-accessible) rock propelled by free-jazz improvisation. It's such a pity it won't be followed up, but if there had to be a send-off, you couldn't ask for much more.
After several years struggling (commercially, if not artistically) to make it all work, Bowie burst into the wider public consciousness in 1972 with Starman and, particularly, its Top Of The Pops performance. It was a big ask to make glam-rock look cool, but Bowie pulled it off. That was a warning of sorts but no one could have predicted what Bowie would do to pop in the 1970s, twisting it into new shapes in his own (many) images. Early single Space Oddity went to number one six years after its original release in the wake of Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane-mania, fantasy rock god made rock god reality, before Bowie sacrificed his rock persona altogether and dished out the cocaine soul of Young Americans and Station To Station.
Soon after, in 1977, he was cleaning up in Berlin and working with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno on the astonishing Low-"Heroes"-Lodger trilogy that left his rivals even further behind. In less than 10 years he'd elevated then killed glam, reimagined what a blue-eyed soul singer could achieve, ignored punk and ridden the crest of the new-wave, and invented the New Romantics.
The Bowie of the 1980s couldn't quite keep pace with all that restless inspiration – no one could – but 1980's Scary Monsters And Super Creeps stands out as a new-pop pinnacle and 1983's Let's Dance was a muscular take on pop-soul and possibly Bowie's best until his recent renaissance. Even as he bewildered with the sprawling spandex-rock of Never Let Me Down or the rasping metal of Tin Machine, Bowie still proved he needn't dance to anyone else's drum.
The 1990s saw the hits fade away, but his Buddha Of Suburbia soundtrack was a quiet mid-career-high, Heathen found Bowie reconnecting with his quirky rock gifts and 1997's Earthling gave him a chance to toy with drum and bass. That may have drawn him towards a zeitgeist not of his own making, but no one else of his vintage could be so brave.
Then the break, and then the glorious return. 2013's The Next Day was as strong as anything Bowie had released in three decades, a preposterous recapturing of form for an artist in his late 60s, and Blackstar goes even further. Now, the ultimate metamorphosis. He is gone, but the wonder will live on.
~ Matthew Horton
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