The bulk of this review was written on Sunday 10th January, just before the shock announcement of David Bowie’s tragic passing. That happy ignorance shows in the commentary and yet, perhaps, it is better to enjoy the album as David intended, free of the weight of his passing rather than burdened down by posthumous reassessment, and so I have left the text unaltered save to add a short postscript.
David Bowie’s return to music making in 2013 was as spectacular as it was unexpected. The drama that surrounded the release of misleading first single ‘where are we now’ (dropped, without warning, on David’s Birthday) led to ‘the next day’ becoming one of the year’s most successful releases. With a certain distance from the drama that surrounded it, ‘the next day’ has stood up to scrutiny and remains a very fine album. However, you cannot repeat such an entry, and the press surrounding ‘blackstar’ has, if anything, been rather understated. Much has been made, however, of David’s newfound jazz approach. Dropping his familiar band in favour of a jazz ensemble and with the big band version of ‘Sue (or in the season of crime)’ still ringing in everyone’s ears after its release on ‘nothing has changed’, no one was clear how far into the world of the avant-garde David would be heading on this outing. In point of fact ‘blackstar’ is far less jazzy than might be assumed, although the spirit of jazz looms large, and the lineage of the album can be traced back to ‘Aladin Sane’ with strong hints of both ‘heathen’ and ‘reality’ thrown in for good measure. In short this is not David Bowie’s ‘Bitches brew’, the results are too coherent, too singularly Bowie-esque for that. However, ‘blackstar’ is a very, very good album (one of David’s best) in that it explores that remarkable back catalogue from a hitherto unexplored angle, underscoring David’s remarkable talent for reinvention once more.
Appearing on vinyl and CD, the vinyl is the way to go. Presented in a die-cut, gatefold sleeve, the vinyl (housed in a clear, plastic sleeve) shows through the star shaped hole cut in the front and it looks stunning. The heavyweight vinyl pressing (specifically mastered for the format) also sounds amazing and every element emerges from the speakers with amazing warmth and clarity. The artwork, meanwhile, goes one step further than Metallica into Spinal Tap territory, with black spot varnish printed on a black background – how much more black could ‘blackstar’ be? None more black – but it looks super cool.
Opening with the title track, the album takes a syncopated beat and subtle atmospherics to create an atmosphere that is closer to Trip Hop than Jazz, the skittering beat and swathes of synth recalling the sparse darkness of Massive Attack’s ‘100th window’. It’s a subtle, downbeat opening that stands at odds with the pounding drums and feral snarl of the next day’s title track. However, it sets the scene for the record and, as eastern influences appear, swathed in horns and with its cry of “I’m a Blackstar!” it becomes increasingly apparent that David has moulded jazz into his own unique style rather than allowed jazz to dictate his sound, much as he did with drum ‘n’ bass on the hugely underrated ‘earthling’ album. It’s a startling opening, one that has both darkness and playfulness in equal measure, and it sets the tone for an album that is relentlessly creative. Next up is a revamped version of ‘tis a pity she was a whore’, a track which originally appeared as a b side to ‘Sue…’ in a home demo version. Here it becomes a big band epic complete with wailing horns and a thunderous rhythm section, David’s voice floating amidst it all, a calming influence amidst the energetic exertions of the musicians and the only tragedy is that we’re unlikely ever to see this performed live. Things take a darker, trippier turn as Cure-esque guitars lead the way into the claustrophobic ‘Lazarus’ only for the rich horns to add a sanguine element to proceedings, as if the piece were influenced by a late night stroll through LA’s back alleys with David Lynch and Barry Adamson in tow. The melody takes its time to unveil itself but, when it finally appears, there are similarities with ‘Uncle Floyd (slip away)’ from ‘Toy’ (and finally recorded for ‘heathen’), further cementing the notion that David is keeping his heritage close even whilst exploring new vistas.
Taking the unusual step of re-recording a previous single, the second half of the album opens with a crushing reinterpretation of ‘Sue (or in the season of crime)’ which sounds much as you’d imagine a Trent Reznor remix of the original track might sound, with the big band elements dialled down entirely in favour of atmospheric guitar leads and lean percussive work courtesy of Mark Guiliana, whose work throughout the album is quite sublime. With a crawling, distorted bass line and David’s unhinged performance, ‘Sue…’ now outstrips its original incarnation through sheer visceral verve and it’s easy to imagine the track finding an equally receptive home on the wilfully obtuse ‘outside’ album. In another nod to his past, David indulges in Nadsat (the language of A Clockwork Orange) on the slithery ‘girl loves me’, which pits warm strings against a skeletal, rhythmic backdrop before ‘dollar days’ drifts into the sort of dreamy pop that David does so well. Arguably the most straight forward song on offer here, it’s quite beautiful and provides a moment of calm before the album concludes with ‘I can’t give everything away’, a track that marries a skittering jazz beat with the laid back melodies of ‘hours’, perfectly combining past and present Bowie and leaving the listener very much wanting more.
‘Blackstar’ is a fantastic album and easily one of Bowie’s finest in years. In pushing himself beyond his comfort zone he has found new ways to express musical elements that have been present in his recordings for years and thus reinvented his sound once again. With a keen experimental edge and yet possessed of memorable melodies, ‘blackstar’ is a remarkably coherent ride and, in keeping it relatively short, David has ensured that the album never outstays its welcome and remains filler free.
‘Blackstar’ is a dark and inventive record. Although David recorded it in the knowledge that he would likely die, it is easy to overstate the references (already much has been made of the fevered cry “where the fuck did Monday go?” in the mainstream media) and it might be more in keeping with his character to think of the album in much the same way as fans regarded Queen’s ‘Innuendo’ – the album is a parting gift and a proud artistic statement from an artist who steadfastly refused to go gently into the night rather than a lengthy self-penned obituary. That said, it seems unlikely that an artist of David’s intelligence and imagination could fully separate the knowledge of his medical status and his writing, and it is arguable that the choice of ‘Lazarus’, a character raised from the dead, as a single was as deliberate as any move in David’s storied career. perhaps the full extent of biography and fantasy found within the record will never be known and it is equally likely that the ambiguity was just another element of David’s plan for this record.
As the immediate pain of David’s passing recedes and the album is regarded by audiences less immediately connected by the singer’s death, it is likely that the most commonly admired facet of ‘blackstar’ will be its surging vitality and restless creative spirit and I stand by the original review’s assertion that this record is one of David’s very best. That alone should be enough to sate those searching for meaning – David Bowie left us at his peak, and for that we should be endlessly grateful.