Three years ago, with nary a hint of warning, David Bowie returned after a decade-long absence with the single “Where Are We Now?” (released on his 66th birthday), and word that a new album, The Next Day, was on the horizon. It was a stunning return for an artist who many assumed had permanently retired from recording. Fortunately, instead of one last hurrah by an aging musical legend, The Next Day appears to have been the start of an exciting new phase in Bowie’s career. Of course, given that he’s well-known for his fearless experimentalism and versatility, it can hardly be considered surprising that the second release since his comeback is nothing like its predecessor. Blackstar is Bowie’s most unconventional album since his dual ’70s masterpieces Low and ”Heroes”, and is a breathtaking and relentlessly fascinating piece of work.
Producer Tony Visconti, who has collaborated on many of Bowie’s greatest triumphs stretching back all the way back to the Space Oddity album in 1969, is once again at the helm for Blackstar. Visconti told Rolling Stone Magazine, “The goal was to avoid rock and roll.” Avoid it they did, but not entirely. Blackstar swerves as close as Bowie has ever come to progressive rock, an amorphous sub-genre in which artists pull energy from just about every imaginable musical source, including jazz and cinematic soundscapes, to create often lengthy and obtuse pieces that aren’t immediately penetrable but require open ears and repeated listens to absorb with any real sense of meaning. Blackstar fits that description, particularly with the strong jazz influences, but that’s still not exactly dead-on. Blackstar is previously unexplored territory for a man who’s already plotted more flags on the musical terrain than anybody else in rock history. There are no potential hits here, not even much in the way of traditional song structures. Blackstar gives away almost nothing on first listen. It’s so outré and surreal that it’s impossible to wrap your head around immediately. It’s like diving into a deep and shadowy lake with endless underwater crevices to explore.
Blackstar opens with the 10-minute title track — the last time Bowie opened an album with an epic this ambitious was the title song to Station to Station which, perhaps coincidentally, turns 40 later this month. “Blackstar” first appeared as the opening theme for the European crime drama mini-series The Last Panthers in October of last year. Over a taut rhythm, Bowie’s choral-like multi-tracked drone belongs in an alien cult’s sacred rite of mourning. It’s a solemn intergalactic hymn that Major Tom might have heard on the glowing planet he mentions in “Ashes to Ashes” while strung out on heaven’s high. Bowie’s chant-like vocals are those of a tormented phantom, as he sings lines like “On the day of execution / only women kneel and smile / at the center of it all / your eyes, your eyes.”
At about the 4:00 mark there is a transition marked by glistening strings until Bowie’s spectral vocals glide in over a subtle guitar part glowing with reverb. The mood is entirely different, with the manic repetition of “I’m a blackstar!” anchoring the end of each line. Then at about the 7:45 point, the song shifts back to the tense drama of the first half. Musically, as with the rest of the album, the vibe is tight, compact, mathematically precise and controlled.
The concept of the black star has numerous meanings in the worlds of the occult, alchemy, astrology, mythology and philosophy. Fans and critics will be dissecting the song’s enigmatic and striking imagery well into the future. Bowie himself isn’t talking — he hasn’t given an interview in over a decade — but he is clearly as invested in this music as anything he’s ever done. This is evident by his deeply compelling performance in the song’s hypnagogic video, which abounds with dark religious iconography and stark celestial scenery. “Blackstar” is the album’s throbbing heart, encompassing nearly one-fourth of its length and setting its tone.
“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” first appeared as the b-side to the new single Bowie recorded for last year’s compilation Nothing Has Changed, “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)”. The version here is far more fully developed thanks to the fiery performances by Bowie’s ace collaborators: New York City-based musicians Donny McCaslin (whose phenomenal sax work is one of the album’s sonic signatures), the brilliant jazz guitarist Ben Monder, and the uber-talented trio of Jason Lindner on keys, Tim Lefebvre on bass and the amazing Mark Guiliana on drums. They infuse Blackstar with a restless anxiety that is particularly evident on “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”. McCaslin’s saxophone stutters over a jittery rhythm with Bowie’s vocals strutting like the half-deranged D.J. from Lodger. The end result is maddening and thrilling.
“Lazarus” is also the title of Bowie’s current musical based on the 1976 film in which he starred, The Man Who Fell to Earth. The track is a stately march with woozy brass over a nimble bass and rigid groove. Bowie’s powerful vocals are bracketed by jagged distorted guitar after every line. Melodically the track is somewhat reminiscent of “Slip Away”, the powerful exploration of loss from 2002’s Heathen. “Lazarus” is the album’s second single, and hopefully some particularly adventurous radio programmers will give it some spins (not likely).
“Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” has a drastically different feel than the original single mix. It has an edgier groove, a much heavier vibe in general, and a savage arrangement. The tension ratchets up notch by notch to a smoldering boil until the cathartic musical freak-outs allow for release before the drama builds yet again. “Girls Love Me” is an eerie, off-kilter track that sounds like it might fit on Bowie’s dark 1995 epic Outside. Bowie’s never been afraid to stretch his voice to the limits — he sounds somewhat deranged here, endlessly repeating “Where the fuck did Monday go?” like a poor impressionable man unhinged by listening to Scary Monsters (and super creeps) for too long and too loud.
“Dollar Days” finds Bowie strumming almost prosaically on an acoustic guitar and singing quite beautifully, but the song quickly turns intense. It has some of the retro-modernism so familiar to Bowie fans — there are endless examples, from “Drive-In Saturday” to “Sons of the Silent Age” to “Slow Burn.” “Dollar Days” is more lush than much of the album, and McCaslin’s sax is white-hot as he flails madly in the background. “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, the album’s upbeat finalé, is built on pulsing synthesizers and tightly-wound percussion. Ben Monder’s searing guitar solo comes in with about two minutes left in the song, swerving like a blazing hot razor while Bowie repeats “I Can’t Give Everything Away” as if acknowledging the inherent mysteries in an album as inscrutable as Blackstar. He may as well be speaking of his entire career… like the sinister ambiguity of “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, the foreboding paranoia of We Are the Dead, or the inscrutable psychosexual meanderings of “The Bewlay Brothers”. It’s never clear where the real David Jones might be hiding in the dense layers of meaning and the numerous personas adopted by David Bowie, and Blackstar is no different. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” seems a rueful admission of what all Bowie fans already know — there are no right answers when listening to Bowie and trying to understand what it’s supposed to be. Once he hands over the master tapes, his part is over and the rest is up to us.
Bowie has released stone-cold classics with three of his last four albums – Heathen (2002), The Next Day (2013) and Blackstar. But as strong as Heathen and The Next Day undoubtedly are, there is a certain safe familiarity to them. Bowie worked with a core of musicians that had been a part of his coterie for many years. With Blackstar, Bowie and Visconti were completely untethered, collaborating with an entirely new group of gifted musicians. The old pros ride the possibilities of their collaborators’ boundless talent to something vast and imposing. Blackstar gets more compelling with each listen, unfolding and expanding in the listeners’ minds — listening to it on headphones is like staring into space, depth perception slowly increasing, the distance between the stars expanding until you are swallowed by endless galaxies.
Blackstar has no reference point — it’s destined to be one itself. It’s trippy and majestic head-music spun from moonage daydreams and made for gliding in and out of life. Although it’s unmistakably Bowie and fits neatly in his catalog, it’s singular in its unique sound and vibe. This is why the world still needs David Bowie — for the unexpected, and the thrill of discovery. Who knows what he might do next? If nothing else, Blackstar is a lesson to us all that we never need stop growing, exploring, lurching in new and challenging directions, as long as we draw breath.