Tagged: january

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.

January 2014: Lorde’s Pure Heroine

 

So, I’m late to Lorde’s album, only by a couple of months, but it’s been worth the wait. The hype’s been around for months and months, following her single, Royals, earlier in the year, which I’d realised had permeated my brain thanks to the peerless 6Music, which seems to sow the seeds of records I like without me even realising it on a weekly basis (see also: Midlake).
Let’s look at the facts: Lorde is Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor (yeah, Lorde’s easier, isn’t it?), a 17-year old New Zealander from Auckland. She first came to prominence with her Love Club EP back in the second half of last year (when she was still 15!), and this album was produced by local Joel Little. What’s it like? Well, it’s very modern electronic pop, if we’re going to get all genre-y. You can see the influences – she’s often cited James Blake’s sparseness – and it’s pretty stripped back, with clever, barbed lyrics, very much showing a love for hip-hop, but putting it in the prism of a girl that, at the time, had never left her home country, it’s pretty startling that it’s actually written by someone that’s tucked away in the end of the southern hemisphere. And that’s not being patronising, it’s just that it’s an unlikely result of such a situation, especially in terms of her age (one lyric on the album states “pretty soon I’ll be on my first plane”, which says it all).
But it’s a great example of lyrics and songs that a 25-year old over here may have written, but likely with songwriters and other producers behind her, as soon as the hype machine took hold. While those not in the know (or too lazy) dismissed her as another record-company construct, she’s the opposite, arriving as a pretty fully-formed artist, most likely a product and a benefit of the cultural or musical isolation of sorts. There’s hints of stuff like James Blake, Massive Attack’s more Spartan arrangements, Lana Del Rey’s languid style (which she’s also stated as an influence) and most obviously the xx (minus the guitars). Most of the album’s dubby pop, but there are a few dancefloor moments too. And there’s a good slab of irony in there, which sings to my ears. Having been to NZ a few times – and this is no slight, as it’s an amazing place – the ennui that also sits throughout the album isn’t faked. Small-town life out there is pretty dry when you’re near to Auckland, let alone coming from London.
I’ve only had a week or so with this album, so my opinions aren’t fully formed yet either, but it’s clear that Lorde’s a precociously talented artist. There’s a bit of a dip in the middle of the album, but then considering that I was busy drinking cider and scooting around Surrey in my Mini at 17, and she’s writing music like this, I can’t really get my head around just what it must take to do that at that age. And most of all, it’s refreshing to have someone emerge like this from an unlikely location, without the taint of record companies and hype or being pushed to work with producers or use songs written for her. Only time will tell how she develops, and one would hope that, while she absorbs the expanding world around her, it doesn’t affect her ability to do what she does.
She’s touring now, especially in the States, where I think her songs will go down as well as they do in the UK, and I can’t wait for her next album.
Enjoy, brothers!