January: David Bowie – Blackstar

 

Well, I was going to say “who saw that coming?” but we’ve been here before. As it’s been said, when you no longer tour and live as a relative recluse, you can control whatever the public sees of you. So it’s no surprise that after The Next Day, which skewered his early years whilst nodding in reverence to them, that David Bowie spent 2015 making a follow-up, confounding us all again with the title track in November. I have to confess I took a little time to finally listen to this, as I wanted to watch the video rather than just the audio. And it stopped me in my tracks. In fact I ended up stood on Cheapside in my lunch break with my mouth open.

As a statement of intent it’s pretty powerful. While I loved The Next Day, for all the parallels to his classic albums, lyrically it was very much in the moment, skewering his character, ageing, his legacy, and proving he still has the edge that made his music so alluring when I first listened in my teenage years. But while the words on Blackstar do find some common ground with The Next Day, that’s mostly where the comparison ends. There’s been a lot (and I mean a LOT) of frothing of about how avant-garde it is, as if he’s turned into John Cage, genetically spliced with Roni Size and Miles Davis, but I’d take much of that with a pinch of salt. For anyone that’s familiar with Radiohead’s more experimental (recent) work, or the likes of Flying Lotus, or Bjork or any other more outre albums of the last two decades (let alone all sorts of electronic music), it’s not that far-fetched, but I guess the praise is in someone of Bowie’s stature and reputation still feeling so fresh, raw, and willing to experiment. After all, I can’t think of many (any?) artists approaching 70 that would do this, or do it with so much success or style. Especially when they’ve had forays into more experimental work with such varying results. I can see how die-hard classic era Bowie fans (especially those who are the same age as the Thin White Duke) may struggle with it, but really forget the hype, and just listen: this is outstanding work, a potential classic in the making, even after a few listens.

The title track’s first half echoes so much of Radiohead to me, and this isn’t a statement of either artistic laziness or pastiche, (just think Thom Yorke singing instead, and it’d be one of their best works itself) but high praise. Coupled with a deeply disturbing video that burns itself onto your consciousness, with Bowie as some sort of excommunicated (punished?) preacher stating prophetic, abstract lines as adolescents convulse and shake in the background, it’s affecting from the start. Who knows what it’s about? There’s been discussion (denied by Bowie’s team) that it’s referencing ISIS, but really it’s the ambiguity that’s the point here. The dead ‘Spaceman’ (Starman? a nice touch either way), the huge candle, the eclipsed (black) star; there’s huge, broad stylistic strokes at play and then, just as you wonder where it can go from here, it slows and shifts into what feels at first like familiar Bowie, its sax and swagger, all offset by the harsh, discordant, repeating chorus. I’m massive fan of long opening tracks on albums (Station to Station, or Elton John’s Funeral For A Friend), after all, isn’t that what albums are for? As an opener you’d think it’s hard to live up to, but it’s a case of setting the scene.

There’s almost breakbeat-ish, brash rock in Tis A Pity She’s A Whore, then a self-effacing Lazarus, which was written for a stage version of The Man Who Fell To Earth. Sue, which is Bowie to d’n’b (in a good way, thankfully) and echoes things like Squarepusher. Similarly, Girl Loves Me goes heavy on percussion and electronics, but they never take over the song itself. Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything Away again talk of death and loss and age and the past. Even a few listens and I’m hooked, and you can only applaud the constant reinvention of a man that could’ve ‘retired’ in 2003 and had a legacy as good as anyone in music.

Bowie continues to confound, and this may be the best thing he’s done since his Golden Years.

11 comments

  1. misterstory

    I write this on Monday morning after hearing the news of David Bowie’s death. I don’t have much in-depth knowledge of Bowie. I have always been more aware of Bowie for his influence on artists that I love than for his own work. As I said before Station to Station is the only album I’ve heard start to finish so I am not the person to discuss how this relates to his previous works. Obviously a sad loss to the world of music and of course to his loved ones. I always think about how it must feel to grieve a parent at the same time as the rest of the world is remembering him and grieving their loss too.

    As for this album. I’ve started but not finished the album a number of times. This is mainly due to professional and parental interruptions but I would be lying if I said I found it easier on these attempts. Whilst I am 100% sure he was not going for easy ‘listening’ this is one that I will have to ‘work at’ which I am happy to do.

    I have a very much love/hate relationship with the saxophone however … this is not always making the experience easier ….

  2. David Allison

    Well, this is has taken on a whole new meaning. The album arrived at the weekend, but I’ve been waiting to sit down to listen to it properly. And now I guess I’ll never have heard it without knowing it was, very concsiously, his swansong. Just watched the Lazarus video and MY GOD he’s lying on his deathbed singing about being in heaven. He knew this was it.

    Anyway, as you all know, Bowie is one of the cornerstones of my musical life, and I am SO sad right now.

    Will put Blackstar on for the first time when I can face it…

    • misterstory

      I’ve not seen any of the video work that goes along with this. I’ll look for it when I have a little more time.
      Ive had this on a few times now and it is starting to settle in. I think you make a good point on listening to it in a totally different context given his death.
      Sad times.

  3. whyohwhyohwhy

    It’s a very strange state of affairs isn’t it? I was really looking forward to this, and I spent the weekend listening to it. While some of the reviews were a bit ott, I think it was a brilliant and adventurous record. It was like he’d got The Next Day there to straddle the chasm between the likes of Young Americans and today and wanted to really go for it.

    I’ve been pretty blown away by it, something that’s probably been enhanced by the videos, which were striking enough before the terrible news, but which take on a more macabre, sombre and deep meaning with Monday’s events. Lazarus in particular is very hard to watch really.

    I don’t own a ton of his work, perhaps 6 albums in all including his new work, but one thing that’s been apparent after his death is how he touched pretty much everyone in some way, from 15 to 85. His influence across style, fashion, music, culture and beyond was just unfathomable. No one else was like it before him and we’ll never see his like again. I spent a lot of Monday really very sad, and I’ve listened to his work from Saturday until today (I’m in Austria now, snowboarding). It’s been hard to listen to anything else. Of course, Blackstar will be appraised on his death, but as a last statement from an icon, it’s pretty powerful.

    What a legacy. What human being.

  4. David Allison

    “Where the fuck did Monday go?”

    It’s taken me quite a while to work out what to say about this album. As his death casts such an extraordinarily long shadow over this, it’s hard to untangle all your feelings and try and talk about it just as a piece of music. Is that even possible? As you all know, I’m a huge Bowie fan, and I’ve been very touched by how profoundly the creative worlds, and music fans globally, have been touched by his death. I’ve probably had a blub at least 10 times in the last week. I think one of the things that’s so upsetting is that there is no obvious successor to his legacy – indeed, I don’t know how their could be another Bowie in our fragmented, ghettoised musical world.

    But anyway, onto Blackstar. I mean, has any artist ever made a more coherent statement about their impending death? Even in the worlds of art, sculpture, literature – have there been many examples so fully formed and cogent? I’ll never hear this album without knowing Bowie was gone, and I kind of regret that. I had it on my desk for 2 days over the weekend, but I was waiting to have the time to sit down properly, as I’d heard it was a dense listen. By the time Monday came, with it the news that Bowie had died…

    I had heard Lazarus, and initially, I’d found it quite a puzzling listen. Of course, it doesn’t seem at all puzzling now. “Look at me, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” That’s a man facing a terminal illness he hasn’t shared with the world, that’s for sure.

    It sure is a dark listen at times, and there’s a rich seam of gallows humour running through it all. But I don’t find it a difficult listen, indeed I’ve listened to little else all week. And, yes, his death does inform this, but this record will surely be added to his canon as another major work. So many great songs. Blackstar is epic and incredible. Lazarus is a stunning centrepiece. Girl Loves Me is bleak and brilliant. Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything Away are just lovely – both songs of saying goodbye, of regret and also maybe acceptance of what’s to come. What a killer that last song is. The only song that doesn’t work for me so well is Sue, which interestingly was recorded a couple of years ago and featured as an extra track on the last album. Understandably, perhaps they were just a song or two short.

    It’s funny – the album I chose to share with you on this blog, Station to Station, reminds me of this swansong so much. It’s wilfully experimental at times, but also funky too. They both come in at only 6 or 7 songs, they both kick off with an epic 10 minute opener. Bowie always said that originality is the most overrated thing, and he’s always mined his own back catalogue for inspiration. So here is he, waving goodbye, with a tip of the hat, sounding both fresh and familiar, like he always did. What a perfect end to an peerless career. Legend is a word so overused it has almost ceased to have meaning. Let’s revive it for this man, because he damn well earnt it.

    “Oh I’ll be free/ Ain’t that just like me”
    It sure is, David.

  5. whyohwhyohwhy

    That’s a lovely lovely bit of writing Brother David. It echoes a lot of my thinking. I agree with you on Sue, but even then it still isn’t totally incongruous. I really can’t stop listening to it, I must have had a good 20 listens now, and I’ve been revisiting Hunky Dory, Station To Station and buying up some new albums. There’s some definite parallels to Station To Station as well, not so much in sound, but in concept and form, and structure. It’s so rich and textured. Yes, it’s bound to be coloured by his death and his legacy, but it’s hard not to be taken in by the power and impact of this being made knowing it was his last.

    I’m going to come back and offer something a little more in depth over the weekend, when I’ll have had 2 weeks going thorugh this. But in some ways, it feels like I need a year. I still love The Next Day, and I think this is going to be a classic too.

  6. misterstory

    There’s some great chat here and as Guy pointed out, some lovely words to accompany the opinion. I am still listening to this a lot. I think my initial opinions have developed somewhat. I am not so concerned with the saxophone work anymore. I am in love with the drumming in general but on Backstar in particular. Its incredible. Its not often I think ‘wow, top drumming’ but this is such an instance (Song for the Dead – Queens of the Stoneage is a noticeable bedfellow in this respect).

    I think Sue is a miss-step but it does not stop me from enjoying the album as a whole. Personally I would have been happy without it and not upset with a 6 song, 36 minute album. How many albums would be better singular pieces of work if they had songs removed (not replaced just shorter, neater more concise albums)? I think this all the time … and don’t start me on bonus tracks again.

    I am gutted that as a Bowie novice I didn’t get to make the comparison to Station to Station as I completely agree. I think there are massive similarities.

    In terms of lyrics everyone is talking ‘Lazarus’ but it’s Dollar Days that makes the biggest emotional impact on me ‘If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to, It’s nothing to meet, It’s nothing to see’ those lines and their delivery spike me every single time.

  7. whyohwhyohwhy

    Nice Brother Joseph. I agree that Blackstar is the monster of the album amongst some beautiful, poignant and mystical songs. It’s ten minutes of haunting, muscular music, that starts a jittery, nervous picture with Bowie’s harmonies almost discordant, but remaining together. The song then slows, and morphs into something else entirely, at first slow and brooding and then almost swaggering. It’s like nothing else I’ve heard him make, and against the backdrop of his death, it’s unbelievably prescient and heartbreaking.

    I’ve probably listened to this album 25 times now, and I’m not even remotely tired of it, in fact I feel like I’m discovering new bits each time, and getting used to its ebb and flow, and every time I Can’t Give Everything Away comes on, it adds some extra weight to the whole enterprise. I guess I’ve come to terms with it being the last song on the last ever Bowie album, but it feels like a gift rather than something sad. There’s some incredible lyrics across the board – no more so than on Lazarus and the two closing tracks – and to think that he could write and sing them knowing what he did. It’s the ultimate artistic expression, an introduction to your own mortality.

    The other real benefit of this is that, having got Hunky Dory and Station To Station on repeat, I’ve also gorged on new (well, never listened) albums from Bowie. Space Oddity/David Bowie, Young Americans, Low and Alladin Sane have all landed on my doorstep in the last two weeks. And jesus, what gems they are. I’m taking them one at a time, and “Heroes” has been my choice to start. It’s odd, as I realise that when I listen to these, I know tracks I didn’t realise I knew (like Beauty and the Beast and Sons Of A Silent Age) and it feels like I’m coming to to discover a new album. It’s like a gift that keeps on giving.

  8. nolankane706

    It’s tough for me to hop into this. I think that you three have covered so much on this I’m not sure if I have much more to add.

    Like many others was just getting stuck into this album when I heard the very very sad news about David Bowie passing away. It’s a loss to music, but an inspiration that he left this album as his parting gift to many and some insight into where he was at in his last year.

    Lazarus is explosive in so many ways. It’s my favourite, though it makes me sad at the same time we you listen to it. Hayley thought it would be perfect for a slow motion scene in a 70’s police show when the worn-out cop is walking down the street with steam from a sewer behind him and a cig (not being ironic) in his mouth. I kind of like picturing that when I listen to it now.

    There are parts of me that want to just listen to this album without knowing what it’s about to have my own perceptions. Perhaps that’s what David Bowie envisioned. Although he was next level, he never came across as a character that wanted to be at centre attention… Bowie that is, Ziggy was different I suppose.

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