Saturday, January 09, 2016

Just the Bowie album I needed - David Bowie's Blackstar

The question I've been asked more than any other about this blog since starting it five and a half years ago is what my obsession is with David Bowie as, clearly, I must have one to want to name a blog after him.

The honest answer is that I'm not, actually, obsessed. But that's not the point. As cultural references go, the suggestion "What would David Bowie do?" (a phrase that surfaced a long time ago in a conversation, and didn't even have anything to do with music) connects to one of the most intriguing cultural icons of the last 50 years.

Bowie's appeal has always been spread across different interests. The music, obviously, but also the characters he has adopted as theatrical manifestations of that music, and then the side projects - the acting, the art, poetry.

Much of this hasn't been the result of restlesness, but his enduring curiosity for finding artistic expression in different forms. Music has clearly been the main outlet, triggered as a teenager - like many other contemporaries - by Elvis Presley (with whom he shares a birthday - yesterday, January 8) - and evolving as a performer through his early obsession with Jacques Brel, Anthony Newley poetry and beat art, to his flirtations with glam rock, American soul, Berlin gloom, drum and bass...the list goes on.

People forever talk about Bowie's reinventions, with journalists lazily describing him as "chameleonlike", but none of his guises have ever been about rebirth or renewal, and certainly not about blending in. In fact the chameleon is probably the last creature you could compare Bowie to. I mean, what kind of background could Ziggy Stardust blend into?

If anything, Bowie has been more of a magpie, collecting scraps of influence from wherever they fall. As a suburban teenager, hanging out in the mod scene of London's Soho with his bestie Marc Bolan, Bowie would indulge the fashions, the institutions and the freedom with which the young and socially liberated of the time could explore without judgement.

Bowie is still acquiring influences from any quarter that appeals to him. And that is where we start with Blackstar (or, simply, ★, to willingly perpetuate the marketing meme), his 26th studio album, released yesterday on his 69th birthday.

That there is a 26th album (28 if you include the Tin Machine records) is still something to contemplate, seeing as we never expected to see a 25th. And yet, here he is, still not quite dead, three years to the day since the world was awoken to a tweet from his filmmaker son, Duncan Jones, alerting us to news that there was something new to listen to (I've lost count of the number of times I listened to Where Are We Now? that day, not only revelling in the joy of a beautiful piece of music, but also getting wrapped up in the questions everyone else had: Why now? Is he back for good? Is this just a one-off? Will there be an album? Will he tour again?).

After a decade's recording hiatus, some would have listened to an album of Bowie opening beer cans, but what we got in The Next Day, the album that followed in March 2013, was confirmation that Bowie was indeed properly back, that dystopian themes were on his mind, and that to ease him back into recording, he was staffed (in utter secret) by stalwarts such as Gerry Leonard, Gail Ann Dorsey, Tony Levin, Earl Slick and producer Tony Visconti. The Next Day was as reassuring as it was brilliant.

But if there's one thing we know about Bowie, he has never done albums - or indeed anything - by numbers, ticking boxes according to audience approval. This is a brief that ★ fits perfectly. It's elevator pitch (I'm assuming) of a "41-minute collection of seven songs born from a New York jazz workshop" might throw arms up in horror, as if someone has finally followed through with Spinal Tap's plan to do Jazz Odyssey, but here, be careful.

It wasn't long after The Next Day came out that Visconti dropped the hint that the ink was continuing to flow. But it wasn't until the Nothing Has Changed compilation in 2014, containing the wonderfully eccentric jazz/drum'n'bass mashup Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), that suggested he was already taking yet another direction. But with Bowie, you can never tell what direction he is going to actually take, and whether he is led there or goes of his own volition.

Sue might have suggested jazz, but Bowie has always been a consumate magpie, acquiring influences as he goes. "We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar," Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone recently."We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn't do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that's exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll."

★ is, then, the result of a series of "workshops" in New York, not far from Bowie's SoHo home, in which he worked with a quintet of local jazz musicians: acclaimed saxophonist and flautist Donny McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Jason Lindner, Mark Guiliana on drums, and bassist Tim Lefebvre, who also tours in the exceptional Tedeschi-Trucks Band. Notably, none (apart from McCaslin, who'd also played on the orginal version of Sue) had been part of a Bowie album before. And yet, in a short space of time, with Bowie turning up at The Magic Shop studio at 10am and going home at 4, recording a couple of tracks a day, the collective would soon have a complete new David Bowie album.

Tracks were honed, recorded and re-recorded, but this was no torturous, over-rotating Born To Run saga. Running, indeed, at just over 40 minutes, it feels like a project. But, then, Bowie has previous here - the Berlin trilogy all ran to similar lengths (Low - 38 minutes, Heroes - 40, Lodger 35) and Station To Station clocked in at 41 - proof that you can certainly do more with less.

★ certainly maintains that maxim. The choice of musicicans notwithstanding, ★ is not, though, a jazz album per se. Blackstar, the lead-in single released in November, flits eccentrically through a topography of many styles throughout its near-10 minutes, an erratic concept in principle, but in execution, recalls and condenses the multi-part epics in the prog rock era.

Like a washing line of mixed socks, Blackstar gaffer tapes together free-form jazz, Middle Eastern influences and even an intersection of crooning mixed with dad dancing soul. Separated from the baffling narrative of the video and its story of fallen angels (yep, that man who fell to Earth again) and the possibility that Major Tom is still with us, just - Blackstar is confounding and absolutely brilliant at every turn. And, yes, it is almost a deliberate statement: "I'm doing things on my own terms. Still."

'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore - which appeared in demo form as a B-side to the original release of Sue - continues the experiment of its A-side, opening with a manic storm of drums, sax honks and piano that, to the casual ear, sound like a school band tuning up. But that's before Bowie comes out with the line "Man, she punched me like a dude", and the entire crazed fusion warms into a swinging cabaret of back-alley illicitness. McCaslin's sax work carries overtones of Bowie's soundtrack to Absolute Beginners, Julien Temple's underated interpretation of Colin MacInnes' coming-of-age-in-Soho novel, and in which The Dame put in a brilliant turn as the Don Draper-like Vendice Partners.

Little in Bowie's history has happened at random. Well, perhaps, the cardiovascular episode that brought about the hiatus in 2004. The secrecy surrounding The Next Day, and the spectacular reveal of Where Are We Now? underscored how Bowie has always been a master of the theatrical entrance. This has made the creation of a Broadway stage show, Lazarus, with Bowie's songs forming the backbone of a story based on The Man Who Fell To Earth, an indication of just how he is still "multimedia" in the strictest sense of that overused expression. The song, Lazarus, from that show, is a menacing space-jazz workout, but with a vocal melody very similar to Heathen's beautiful Slip Away, giving way to a somnolent fadeout featuring manic stabs of guitar and Lefebre reaching into the upper reaches of his bass.

And then we get to Sue (Or in a Season of Crime): somewhere between its original release two years ago, and its arrival on this album, Bowie has re-recorded it, removing the bonkers New York improv and replacing it with a jarring, mechanical anger, hooked by Monder's bouncing guitar, and one that reflects the song's somewhat bleak narrative of the death of a loved one. The drum'n'bass/funk mashup is still there, but further into the background, with Bowie's vocals - at their most Scott Walker-like - holding their own, almost as a completely different song to that being played by the band, with the mournful refrain "I kissed your face, I touched your face - Sue, good-bye".

Girl Loves Me will no doubt alienate some, but it is one of the strongest examples on ★ of that magpie tendency, drawing on Bowie's insatiable appetite for new music. If there was any outright influence of Kendrick Lamar on the album, this is the track that it appears on, marrying jazz, funk and hip-hop senisibilities into a recursive Anthony Burgess metre (and rhythmic repetition of the F-word) in lyrics that hardly seem to go anywhere. It will confound and even infuriate. But then a good Bowie song should do.

Over the seven tracks on ★, it is hard to pick out an absolute highlight, but that's simply because there is something enthralling in all of them. Dollar Days, however, might edge the other six. With its beautiful, smoky introduction, Bowie's acoustic guitar strumming and more terrific work by McCaslin, it has an elegant dolefulness that harks back to the Berlin albums, but with a warmth lacking in those cold recordings. The song itself suggests Bowie getting wistful for his the "English evergreens" of his homeland, but this is actually more of a rejection than pining, delivered via an intimate vocal and that rich Bowie voice that lends itself more to a Sinatra croon than anything else. It is magnificent.

The Next Day and, now, ★ shed light on David Bowie's current take on the world. In his private life, from what we can tell, he is wildly satisfied, enjoying the amazing near-anonymity of life in New York's Lower West Side, walking his daughter to school, and embracing to the full the cultural tapestry on offer in the condensed concrete village of Manhattan. But despite this, in his music, Bowie still expresses a gloomy view of societal decline, of a world under threat and an uncertain future.

On the closing track, I Can't Give Everything Away, Bowie perhaps guards against expectations of his own longevity: "I know something is very wrong," it opens with, "The pulse returns for prodigal sons", although this narrative may have more to do with self-reference to the world's fixation with Bowie's constant use of characters and whether they simply serve as a vessel, like an alien invading a host body, or whether they are actually all actor's masks, cleverly protecting the soul behind them. It is, though, another emotive performance from the entire ensemble, with each of the guns-for-hire adding delicate coats of paint to the song's enveloping warmth.

★is simply stunning. You might have expected me to say that but, trust me, I don't out of slavish sycophanticism. Because, creatively, conceptually and, most of all, musically, it has exceeded expectations. It is the Bowie album I wanted, and we needed.

While most of his contemporaries, if they're either still alive or still producing, are barely altering the canvass on which their careers were built, Bowie is still shape shifting. For a 69-year-old, he is still challenging conventions of what contemporary music should sound like. It's what he has always done, for almost 50 years, but the fact that he's not resting on his laurels and putting out more of what we're used to, is incredibly, wonderfully, brilliantly refreshing.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Over the top? We haven't yet started!

"Do not go over the top". A typically Dutch thing to say. They are a pragmatic people, immune to hyperbole and the superlative. Thus, Guus Hiddink's first words yesterday when pressed for comment on Chelsea's emphatic 3-0 win over Crystal Palace were predictably understated.

Under the veteran Dutchman, Chelsea have now played three matches. Two were draws, and not particularly convincing of an immediate return to good times. But, then, they were both Christmas fixtures, one against a feisty, high-flying Watford on Boxing Day, the second, a lethargic away game against a maudlin Manchester United 48 hours later.

However, Guus, forgive us for going a little nuts after Chelsea's performance at Selhurst Park. Because it was everything the last two weren't. Actually, it was everything the last four months haven't been.

This could have been another banana skin for Chelsea: Alan Pardew's Palace - and his credentials for possible greatness elsewhere - are not contending for a European place by fluke. And given that, on the morning of the fixture, this was seventh playing 16th, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Chelsea to have run into trouble at their south London rivals, a team which has given them plenty of resistance over the years in league and cup ties.

Instead, we had a Chelsea revived, restored even. Diego Costa and, for the most part, Cesc Fàbregas, were once again working as a machine, with the combustible forward applying the discipline to remain where he could (and did) score, while the ever-industrious Willian - easily the only consistent performer over the last four dark months - along with Oscar giving the leggy Palace defenders too much to contend with.

Defensively, Chelsea were back to their rock solid-best, the only notable weakness being Branislav Ivanovic's yard-short pace. Most surprising was John Obi Mikel. For the ten years he has been with the club, Mikel has been a frustration. Once bizarrely hailed as the 'new Makelele', he has scuffed and bruised his way through successive managers without fully justifying why he remained such a club fixture. But yesterday he was a different player, replacing Matic in the holding position with a solidity and class rarely demonstrated before. And only once coming close to a booking, a rarity for Mikel in itself.

This was the Chelsea of the first half last season - imperious in attack, resolute in defence. It is understandable, then, for Hiddink to call for modesty. One game does never a recovery make. But what has been noticeable over these last three games of the Dutchman's "interim" tenure is that Chelsea's players have applied themselves once more with confidence and swagger. Whatever it was under José Mourinho that inhibited their creative movement appears to have disappeared.

Strange, then, that so many commentators are talking about the players' mindset. Going back over consecutive posts since August 8, this blog had been saying that Chelsea's problems were psychological, not physical. Now, players that had looked out of ideas since pre-season have, in just 270 minutes of football done much to restore their professional reputations, reputations that had been battered by a combination of their own mental weakness and, clearly, the exulted regime they had laboured under.

It would be fair to say that Chelsea's malaise since the summer has been a case of six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the other. Mourinho can't be blamed for all that saw them plummet so far so quickly - the players and indeed the club itself must shoulder equal amounts of responsibility for that. But the spoonful of medicine that Hiddink's interim management is meant to apply, yet again, does look like it is working.

Positivity is Hiddink's key. Although it may not have worked for him in his most recent roles - since his last interim period in charge at Chelsea, he had a miserable time in charge of Russia and Turkey, and left the Dutch national side in the summer when it was clear they wouldn't qualify for Euro 2016 - it's clear how different his philosophy is to Mourinho's glowering and increasingly paranoid mood.

"I don’t like to see a team drop back very far and seek false security," Hiddink said yesterday, in stark contrast to the 'defend at all costs' approach of his predecessor. Tellingly, he added: "They should look forward and get the ball as soon as possible because when they do, they know how to play." That may sound a tad laissez-faire, but it perhaps indicates a belief that his players don't need a meticulous playbook methodology, but a guiding belief in themselves.

But, indeed as the avuncular Dutchman says, it would be wrong to get too carried away. Next weekend the Blues face Scunthorpe in the FA Cup, a third-round tie, but one with the still-fresh scars of their fourth-round exit last season to Bradford City, a result that left Mourinho "ashamed" and "embarassed". As it should have been for the whole team. After that, it will be a midweek Premier League visit from West Brom, followed by meetings with Everton, Arsenal, Watford and Manchester United. A relentlessly wet afternoon in Croydon may have provided Hiddink's players with a certain mental challenge - which they impressively overcame - but there are clearly many more hills to climb yet. But as starts go, yesterday's will do very nicely.