Skyfall

The first thing to say about Sam Mendes’ tremendous Skyfall is that it makes its predecessor in the James Bond series, Quantum Of Solace, look even worse. Whereas the first film of Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007, Casino Royale, was one of the very best Bond films, Quantum was dull, uninspired and gave every indication that Marc Forster didn’t have the first idea how to direct an action sequence or co-ordinate an interesting plot. With further havoc caused by the temporary cessation of MGM, who own the Bond rights, it looked for a while as if Craig’s excellent, engaged interpretation of Bond would, like Timothy Dalton’s, be left at two films, one good and one poor.

Thankfully, all was made right, and the resulting picture is an exhilaratingly brilliant romp that simultaneously furthers everything Casino Royale did right and cleverly redefines James Bond for the 21st century. The plot – a revenge saga, mainly set in London – is beautifully simple, containing no spaceships, world domination or plots to take over oil franchises. Instead, it contains a near laundry list of good things, from one of the best baddies in the series in the shape of Javier Bardem’s blonde, insinuating psychopath with a very personal grudge against Judi Dench’s stalwart but also fragile M, to Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography which makes this not just the best-looking Bond film ever, but also one of his finest works.

A fantastic cast, including everyone from MI6 mandarin Ralph Fiennes to gutsy field agent Naomi Harris, is given a very strong script to work with, which judges the fine line between seriousness and playfulness just right – it’s a good deal less intimidatingly sober than Craig’s previous two films. It isn’t perfect - the climax is somewhat underwhelming after the brilliance of many of the other set-pieces (including an Istanbul set-to and explosive destruction on the London Underground) and a scene in Macau casino involving giant lizards feels like it’s come out of another film – but it proves, inter alia, that a cerebral director like Mendes can make this sort of pulpy fun both serious and seriously entertaining. Expect it to be a massive, massive hit, and don’t bet against many of the same team returning for the next one.

The return of David Bowie

Since I started writing this blog, I can’t think of very much that has given me more pleasure than learning that David Bowie – my musical, and indeed literary, spiritual, cultural and much more besides, idol – is releasing a new album, after a decade-long break. Rumours have circulated about ill health and retirement – but all I can say is thank you, Mr David Jones, for making me, and no doubt millions of others, very happy. It’s his 66th birthday today, and what a very fine way to mark it.

The video for the superb, elegiac comeback single, ‘Where Are We Now’, can be watched here. It’s especially good from about 3 minutes in.

David Bowie – The Next Day

I’ve refrained from writing anything about David Bowie’s new album before now because I haven’t quite been sure what to say. As I wrote in my earlier blog about his comeback single ‘Where Are We Now?’, I can’t think of very much in music that’s made me happier than Bowie’s entirely unexpected and surprising return, and to some extent the fact that he’s producing new music and (as far as the photos and videos of him seem to suggest) well and happy is enough. Frankly, the quality of the album is near-immaterial.

However, after repeated listenings, The Next Day seems to be a very fine album indeed. Of course, it isn’t up to his 70s peak, an era where he could apparently effortlessly produce classic song after classic song, but it’s a good deal better than the vast majority of what he’s produced since 1980. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I like much of what he’s done since then – any best of I compiled would have to have, for instance, Loving The Alien, Everyone Says Hi, Absolute Beginners, Slip Away, Never Get Old, New Killer Star, Hallo Spaceboy, Seven and many, many more on it…)

Bowie has returned, and he’s come back in style. Musically, the album is a constant wonder. I’m not wild about the second single, ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’, and a return to experimental Earthling-era material in ‘If You Can See Me’ (I’m sure that’s a pun, but can’t figure out what at the moment) feels ever so slightly like your 66-year old grandfather trying to get down, y’know, with the hipster set. Everything else is peerless, musically and lyrically. Song after song sees Bowie look at his past with amused, jaded eyes and refer to it either directly (the Berlin of ‘Where Are We Now’, the ‘Five Years’ drumbeat at the end of the gorgeous, swooning ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’) or obliquely. Thus, ‘The Next Day’ itself recalls ‘Fashion’, just as the snarling chorus of ‘Here I am/Not quite dying’ seems a definitive two-fingered salute to all those who wrote off Bowie as a man on death’s door, and ‘Love Is Lost’ seems to take on the Coldplay/Arcade Fire style of organ-led homage to his 70s work, and then, almost casually, better it with ferocity and grace.

Over and over again, he seems vastly more engaged than he did on his previous two albums, Heathen and Reality, both of which were stuffed full of good songs but lacked a certain something. I saw him live a few times as he performed an apparently never-ending tour between 2002-4, and it was something to behold, with Bowie in fine voice and full fettle. Now, with no tour or live dates planned and no interviews, he seems to have taken a step backwards from the limelight. We don’t know if he’ll ever perform again, give another public statement of any stature or record another album. But then we never expected a work as magnificent, as well-thought-out and surprising as this, and we should be grateful that if Bowie does decide to leave this as a swansong, that he’s still raging against the dying of the light.