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.


  1. Lazarus was his goodbye.... his life was an art... and his death was an art....

    1. It really was. I've just watched the video again. Together with the prescience of the lyrics, it was as enigmatic a fairwell as any artist has given.

  2. I'd been dreading announcements of Bowie's exit since his heart problems a few years back... when he released his "come back" and then the subsequent effort, it put my mind entirely off the possibility... for some reason I only associate non-violent showbiz deaths with the long tails of feeble work and declining powers. When it happened I was stunned in a way one can't normally be stunned that a 69-year-old has slipped the planet. Damn. And I was so hoping to see the world's first 99-year-old Rock Star...

  3. My best friend has left me with so much to enjoy. I can't begin to explain the huge impact he was to me as a 13 year old boy. I embrace what he was during my life as we developed. I wish his energy a great voyage from here.

  4. My best friend has left me with so much to enjoy. I can't begin to explain the huge impact he was to me as a 13 year old boy. I embrace what he was during my life as we developed. I wish his energy a great voyage from here.

  5. It's a deep album !

    Listen also the great Hunky Dory here: