Friday, November 20, 2015

You never call, you never write...Bowie is back. Again.

So, nothing in ten years, and then, in the space of three, two new albums come along. Welcome, then, to the bonkers, enigmatic world of David Bowie, the changeling, cultural icon, artistic innovator, and many other things The Guardian will no doubt pour over at length in the weeks to come before Blackstar, the second of the two new - yes, I've used that word - albums is released.

The last one, The Next Day, was recorded with such stealth that even when Bowie was photographed outside New York's The Magic Shop studio, no one twigged that he was actually working on the record inside. This time, though, we've had fair warning. Three weeks ago came confirmation from Camp Dame that the album Blackstar would be released on January 8, Bowie's 69th birthday, copying the stupendously surprising appearance on the same day in 2013 of Where Are We Now?, the haunting prelude to The Next Day's eventual release that March.

Last night, Bowie released a ten-minute video single for Blackstar's title tracksetting in train an outbreak of chin-stroking and head-scratching at both the song and the video's meaning, which appears to be one of death and decay.

Where Are We Now? did much the same, especially as it was the first, proper, new Bowie material after a decade of musical silence, and its mournful, reflective mood immediately became interpreted as some form of denuement. As we now know, the album that followed represented anything but - a vibrant, reinvigorated Bowie with plenty to say.

Blackstar's meaning is yet to be revealed, leaving us all open to speculation. Personally, I doubt there's a particularly profound meaning to it all, and that Bowie is just messing with us. But the single - an edited version of which is being used for the Sky series The Last Panthers – will certainly instigate more bafflement, and confirm earlier media speculation that "Blackstar may be [Bowie's] oddest work yet".

Photograph: Johan Renck

But, first, let's get Johan Renck's Blackstar video out of the way: a gaunt Bowie, appearing first as a blind man, with facial bandages and David Lynch hair, a women with some sort of animal's tail, a seemingly permanently eclipsed sun, screaming scarecrows, a couple of half-naked young men with jerking bodies, and then a healthier, sighted Bowie, frugging to the song's funky mid-section in a manner similar to his Dancing In The Street dad-dancing horror with Mick Jagger.

Ending with Bowie holding up a battered book, the Blackstar motif on its cover (not exactly a design stretch - ★ ), it could all be about the Day of Judgement. Or it may have not been a promo at all, but the downloaded dream of someone who'd overdone the cheese during a particularly vigorous fondue evening.

Listening, however, to Blackstar, sans the visual madness, the real Bowie comes through. Sectioned into three parts, with the first and the third comprised of a Gregorian-like ambience, and an eliptical refrain (the Kings Of Leon's lyrical stock in trade) laid over an abrubt electronic drum pattern of the kind Bowie flirted with on the Earthling album. Out of and into these seemingly disjointed sections, the mood changes, like full daylight in between the dawn and twilight, melodically warming up with flourishes of saxophone, synths and jazz-funk experimentation.

In a way, it is essential Bowie, but whereas in the past the topography of his styles has varied over entire albums, or even entire eras of albums, Blackstar skillfully compresses this variety into one long song. In principle that sounds like an unworkable mess, but truly it isn't. Nor, does this melange of tempo and tone mean that Bowie has gone prog (he always was, in any case, but his version of the theatrical and avant garde has traditionally been accepted as higher art). 

It does, however, provide a fascinating taster for what the album Blackstar will bring in January. Producer Tony Visconti has already suggested that it will be far less conventional than The Next Day (adding how that had been intended to be "something new, but something old kept creeping in").

This bodes well for fans uncomfortable with - or just wary of - Bowie the pop star, hoping for a return or at least a reflection of the experiemental nature of the Berling trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger. More importantly, it demonstrates that Bowie is not only back, but as determined as ever to confound audiences, something he's done at every turn.

I'm constantly asked what it is that fascinates me about David Bowie, and - I promise - this blog's title isn't any sign of obsession (it was simply a throwaway comment that stuck in my head). Surprisingly, singalong hits and a canon of memorable pop-rock aren't my the primary focus.

What intrigues and excites me about Bowie's near-50 year recording career is that at every turn he has dared to be different every time, risking change for the sake of it. Few - if any - artists of his peer and age groups have been so varied and experimental, encompassing styles as diverse as vaudeville theatre, space rock, drum'n'bass, funk, metal, jazz...

In fact, is there any style he hasn't tried? On January 8, we will find out what else he has up his sleeve.

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