Blackstar cover art - Monolith Cocktail


David Bowie   ‘★’   (ISO/RCA)

Still preoccupied with that old messiah complex and the anxieties of the times, David Bowie unveils his latest ode to resurrection ★ (pronounced Blackstar). Preoccupied with jazz, though as we’re told like a mantra, “This isn’t a jazz album. Its a rock album played by jazz musicians”. There is a fundamental difference. Off-kilter leanings and daft nuances from the progressive jazz catalogue permeate this album, but that is all. There is no sudden embrace of be or hard bop, or spiritual, modal or psychedelic consciousness. There isn’t even any traces of that much maligned and cringe worthy offshoot “fusion”. Instead, Bowie’s recently recruited hip West Village jazz troupe adds an inventive, fresh lilt to the favoured rock and pop music tropes to create something unique. It shouldn’t come as a surprise however, his very first musical stirrings being on the saxophone as the young Mod about town in the early 60s before he changed his name from the one his mother gave him, David (Davy) Jones, to the immortal Bowie. The long hairs of the psychedelic age beckoned and Bowie cut loose the restraints of jazz to wear dresses, take on mime and reinvent himself as a cerebral vaudeville troubadour.

He raises, he soars and than he falls, Bowie’s usual cycle of creativity builds and than wears out each new character he adopts. Yet left to his own devices, somewhere out in a metaphysical space, Major Tom is still causing Bowie sleepless nights it seems. The title track from his ‘Wide Eyed Boy’ meets Outside, ‘Blackstar’, was accompanied by a video that featured an unnamed astronaut, fallen and lain dormant covered in dust in Bowie’s apocalyptic cryptic world. Whether he comes to bury old ghosts or inject life into them, the leitmotif of resurrection once again looms large. Mortality preys upon his mind, and why wouldn’t it, as his own trifles with death and the rate of ageing starts to take its toll. Despite the shuffling but tight jazz drum breaks and mourning on a New York dock scene saxophone, these elements are attentive, dampened even, and composed. The title track a flat beat ten-minute minor opus, rich with hints of Black Tie White Noise, Diamond Dogs (6:50 minutes in) and some melodious reverent classicism, is a song in more or less three parts. Strewn with those obligatory clues and references (which have nothing to do with ISIL and the present Syrian crisis we’re told) it is an ambitious if ambiguous start, and like many songs from the Bowie cannon, its cunning and complexity unveils itself on repeated plays.

So far meeting with worldwide acclaim form critics – the ones allowed to actually hear the LP in its entirety before the official release – Blackstar is musically an improvement on the straighter laced rock songbook of The Next Day. That record is now considered a songbook of nostalgic reminisces; yet he apes if not carries on with the same concerns on this short – more a Station To Station in length and track numbers – follow up. He has even brought back or decided to return and finish the story of The Man Who Fell To Earth, revisiting the tragic alien stuck in exile figure of Thomas Jerome Newton for a Broadway play entitled Lazarus – see, again with the resurrections! Stupefied with the vices and almost resigned languid resentments of Earth, Walter Tevis’s original character made pallid flesh by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s stunning, evocative movie adaptation, was last seen in a near somnolent state more or less beaten, his mission failed and his love ones dying in the drought that parched his native homeland. The second track to be shared from the album, Lazarus features that recurring sweetly forlorn saxophone – found throughout the back catalogue -played over a maudlin, and at first very stark, indulgent wallowing backing track. With usual ambiguity, Bowie once again croons about scars, heaven and breaking free, his slow building indulgence unfurling its depth and maladies at a crawl. Closer to Heathen and Reality, Lazarus is influenced to a degree by the critics darlings of the music scene Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips but sounds more like TV On The Radio and The XX.

Already gaining airplay and floating around for a while, ‘Tis A Pity She Is A Whore’ is golden Bowie, and the track that gave life to the rumours of his acquired penchant for jazz. Riffing on the infamous 17th century John Ford tragedy of the same name, a forlorn crooning Bowie sings oblique lines over a plaintive saxophone and heavy drum barrage on the fieriest track from the album. In a similar mode, a new punchier version of 2014’s ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ is a less shaky untethered rock and speedy break beat hurtling improvement. And once again features a resigned downcast Bowie taking on the role of a sucker-punched sap. This leaves a trio of material that hasn’t until the album’s release been aired or teased out over the net. ‘Girl Loves Me’ has a harassed Bowie yodelling, wistfully sighing and yearning with his Berlin trilogy style vocals to a methodical striding march, as he converses in a mix of Polari and A Clockwork Orange. Quite a change in tempo and style, ‘Dollar Days’ is again a reflective take, perhaps even a regrettable lament. Plaintive in a ballad style, Bowie almost eulogising, the lyrics are delivered and beautifully caressed. In a similar vein, the album’s finale ‘I Can’t Give You Everything’ is another wistful dip back into the Black Tie White Noise album. Repeating a most poetic set of verses that both unravel and confound, it is a majestic, diaphanous if sad curtain call.

 

Despite the gloom, Bowie is still a sprightly creative artist, celebrating his 69th birthday with a new album that stretches the imagination and puts most of his peers to shame. Of course, it still isn’t as daemonic, unsettling and untethered to the boundaries of pop and rock music as we’re led to believe; Scott Walker this ain’t, Bowie still transmogrifying his Crowley/Kabbalah/Nietzsche/Occult/Norse and beyond cycle of references into a more sellable pop format no matter how many genres he absorbs. Walker has gone into the abyss in comparison and almost removed any earthly links to melody and song structure. Can the same be said for Bowie despite his recent long-winded jazz influenced opuses?

Saying that, this could be the most pure, at least concerned, version of Bowie yet. Resurrected free of his characterisations, the gilded “Blackstar” is just as uneasy and scared at the anxieties, stresses and daunting prospects of the future as the rest of us. Fame, celebratory is mere smoke after all and offers little in the way of comfort and safety in the face of the impending end times. Yet despite being easily his best album since Earthling, Blackstar is still underwhelming and falls short of being a classic. It isn’t even as experimental as Outside, which is a criminally underrated album, and lacks a real punch. But it is moving in the right direction, and instead of listening to those younger hip cats, he’d be better off paying more attention to that other famous Capricorn Scott Walker.


Words: Dominic Valvona




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