Album review: David Bowie’s Blackstar – a remarkable return to form
David Bowie has always been something of an enigma, but only comparatively recently has he become a full-blown man of mystery. Like 2013’s The Next Day, his 25th studio album Blackstar has arrived unexpectedly; another musical meteorite from the Man Who Fell to Earth. Out on January 8, the singer’s 69th birthday, it was finished three months before anybody beyond Bowie’s inner-circle knew it existed.
As with The Next Day, it seems the singer won’t be doing any interviews or live dates to promote his new album. The “talking-up” of Blackstar, as if it were needed, has thus fallen to Bowie’s long-term producer Tony Visconti, and to the musicians other than Bowie who played on it.
Foremost among the latter is Donny McCaslin, a brilliant saxophonist who also plays various woodwind instruments on Bowie’s latest. When Rolling Stone spoke with McCaslin last month, he sounded as thrilled as perhaps only a man plucked from relative obscurity can be. “I thought, ‘This is David Bowie, and he chose me, and he’s sending me an email?’” he gushed, recalling the singer’s bolt from the blue invite to Magic Shop, the New York City recording studio where much of Blackstar was secretly laid down.
For Bowie’s fans, the plot really thickened when he debuted the album’s 10-minute title track on Sky Atlantic back in November. Foreboding-sounding and truly audacious, Blackstar – also the new theme tune for the said TV channel’s crime drama The Last Panthers – blends free-form jazz, skittering drum ‘n’ bass beats, electronica, pop-soul tropes and more into at least four distinct sections.
It was the song’s outlandish accompanying video, though, that really set tongues wagging. What were we to make of its lasciviously-writhing scarecrows; of the jittery zombie choreography and cult-like symbolism? What were we to make of the woman with the mouse’s tail who appears to discover the jewel-encrusted skull of Bowie’s Space Oddity and Ashes to Ashes alter ego, Major Tom?
Soon, the breadth of the general public’s confusion about the Blackstar promo became clear. For some it wasn’t so far removed from Labyrinth, the 1986 musical/fantasy film starring Bowie and directed by The Muppets creator Jim Henson. Others thought it made coded references to ISIL, or the writings of English writer Aleister Crowley.
Amid all the sometimes scary, sometimes plain-daft imagery, one thing was clear: Bowie looked as suave and as self-possessed as ever. There’s a point in the promo where he cheekily thumbs his nose at the camera and sings, “I’m not a pop star… I’m a blackstar.” Whatever Blackstar was about, it was clear he was having fun.
Like all UK-based reviewers, your scribe heard the rest of Bowie’s new album at the offices of the singer’s London-based PR. Discovering what the great man has been up to via headphones and an iPad seems unfitting somehow, but sitting down and pressing “play”, the sense of occasion is still palpable.
Blackstar is full of melody, runs to a fairly concise 42 minutes, and is comprised of just seven songs – a different version of the jazz-infused Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) first appeared as a bonus track on Bowie’s 2014 best-of Nothing Has Changed.
The new album isn’t “difficult” or inaccessible by any means. Still, the slightly sinister-sounding curio Girl Loves Me, with its brooding strings, odd little vocal inflections, and warped nursery-rhyme feel, suggests that commercial appeal wasn’t at the forefront of Bowie’s mind.
‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, which take its title from a work by 17th-century playwright John Ford, is similarly exotic. Bass and drums drive its avant-garde jazz arrangement while McCaslin’s sax punctuates Bowie’s bizarre, almost incidental lyric: “When she punched me like a dude / ‘Hold your man-hands!’, I cried.”
Throughout the record, a relaxed, free-flowing experimentalism prevails. Bowie invited McCaslin’s jazz musician pals Jason Lindner (keyboards), Ben Monder (guitar), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and Mark Guiliana (drums) to play too, and their dazzling, all-but-unrivalled musicality helps to facilitate yet another daisy-fresh chapter in Bowie’s long, storied-career.
“The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock ‘n’ roll,” Visconti has said, but at no point does Blackstar prompt the listener to call the jazz police.
Dollar Days begins with the sounds of sheets of paper rustling and Bowie breathing, and is probably the album’s most beautiful moment; a song built on strummed acoustic guitar, a gorgeous, softly-chiming electric guitar motif, and piano.
McCaslin’s classy sax solo, with its unusual intervals, is a whole other currency, it’s true, but when Bowie sings: “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me”, he doesn’t sound that far removed from his classic singer-songwriter self.
We don’t know, of course, whether he is still using the lyrical cut-up technique he first learned from William Burroughs, but there are moments on Blackstar where Bowie reaches new levels of opacity. I Can’t Give Everything Away, for example, seems like a tease from its zip-mouthed title down. A soaring, Heroes-like half-epic, it finds Bowie singing: “Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.”
It’s a deliberate muddying of the waters that you suspect was undertaken with a certain glee.
Our host’s voice, meanwhile, sounds in ridiculously fine fettle from the boots of his baritone to the tips of his falsetto. Indeed, on Lazarus, a haunting down-tempo song with a fabulous bass guitar groove and a simple three-note sax hook, you’re reminded how much elegance Bowie’s voice has brought to pop music.
Typically inventive and typically cool, Blackstar is an excellent return that deploys a useful old trick: recruiting fresh blood to oxygenate that of the band leader. And that Bowie does lead here, as he always has, is never in doubt (prior to recording the album proper, he spent five months finessing his new material in the little home studio set-up he has in New York).
How great it would be, though, if the singer brought all that purpose and energy back on stage. Bowie hasn’t sang a note in public since 2006, and Blackstar’s best songs – its supernovas – deserve a live audience.
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.
Updated: December 19, 2015 04:00 AM