David Bowie is popular music’s own Lazarus. Much like the biblical character’s return from the tomb, Bowie has put his multiple selves to rest over the past half-century, only to rise again with a different manifestation. Resurrection alone is a hard thing to follow, and Bowie has greatly succeeded.
As much as ‘Blackstar’ challenges our idea of what a David Bowie record sounds like, its blend of jazz, drama and estrangement create a new type of futurism in his sound.
Rather than trying to supersede his innovative sounds during the ’70s, as he did in the ’80s and ’90s, he is now harvesting those sounds in a peculiar and captivating way. The album features a quartet of new collaborators, led by celebrated modern jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Bowie’s longtime studio partner Tony Visconti is back as co-producer, bringing along with him some continuity and a sense of history.
Thematically, ‘Blackstar’ drives on with an apathetic emptiness that has been seen in much of his work. You feel the disunion between being very present in the living, but also being aware of the finality and fragility of life. The clashes come through strongly in the album via impulsive jazz solos and determined vocals meeting stories of destruction and heavy force.
The ripping ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ gets its name from a 17th-century play, in which a man has sex with his sister only to stab her in the heart in the middle of a kiss. Bowie’s twist on this story involves some crafty gender role questioning lyrics: “she punched me like a dude”. This a theme Bowie has always been clever with.
‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ finds a disordered sounding Bowie reassuring the supposed woman that “the x-ray’s fine”. Later, he buries her, “I pushed you beneath the weeds”. One does not question Bowie’s creepy answerability in this tale, which is heightened by the driving electronic bass sounds.
Even more mysterious, is the rubbery tuned ‘Girl Loves Me’, which is sung in a mixture of ‘A Clockwork Orange’s’ ‘Nadsat’ and ‘Polari’, the gay slang of former Soho. “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Bowie almost yodels. One presumes he is not merely talking about the unpleasant and mundane shock of the beginning of the working week, but more of a deep dystopian woe.
‘Dollar Days’ is the profession of a fidgety soul who could not spend his advancing years in a divine British countryside, even if he wanted to. “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again.” These words could be a motto for ‘Blackstar’ and almost all of Bowie’s career. There is a sense of melancholy in this, but also a self-acceptance of his status. Then, on ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, he returns to the frustrated ‘Lazarus’ feel, obstructed by a returning beat.
This uncomfortable future of immortality is a reality for Bowie. The artist will live on long after the man has died. One gets the impression, that whilst Bowie has control over his own myth, he is grabbing hold of his story and steering it exactly how he wants.
The overall effect of ‘Blackstar’ is thoroughly hazy and hypnotic. It is an opulent, deep and strange album. Bowieseems to be moving agitatedly forward. Always looking ahead: the point in which he has made his greatest music.
‘Blackstar’ is out now via ISO, RCA and Columbia.