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.