The Bowie juggernaut is well and truly at top speed with Blackstar, a tremendous consolidation of the fact that Bowie is Well and Truly Back. A few years ago he came back from a lengthy musical silence with the surprise single ‘Where are We Now?’ and The Next Day, an album that had critics and fans salivating over how good it was, even though it wasn’t quite that good. I think a lot of us were just so happy he’d stepped out of the shadows and hadn’t deivered a stinker. Personally, I thought that album was a little too safe, a bit too ‘Bowie as rock’s elder statesman’, not that much different from the similarly good but not great Reality. Still, in retrospect, it did a lot of right things, such as getting him back in the limelight in the first place, delivering at least a half-an-album’s worth of gems, plus hinting at possible future directions, such as on its most bonkers and exciting track (‘If You Can See Me’). Blackstar takes that song’s frenzied pulse, as well as reworking both sides of the single (‘Sue’/’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’) he released to support his umpteenth compilation released a year or so ago, and the result is his best albums in ages. I’m not going to churn out that whole ‘best since Scary Monsters‘ spiel, because that does all those excellent albums he’s done since a disservice. One thing Blackstar definitely does better than anything since Scary Monsters however is structure – this is his most satisfyingly put-together work since before compact discs and their whole slackening of quality control took over. A mere seven songs, and everything is in its right place – seven excellent songs, I must add.
The outstanding song is the title track, released as a single (though only as a download), backed by an astonishing video that was properly freaky, mental and fascinating. The song itself begins with a skittering, nervous electronic pulse, a creepy and atonal saxophone, Bowie’s vocals as melodramatic and quiveringly weird as anything he’d done in the seventies. It’s all hushed, sinister, foggy and cavernous, but then a mid-section reaches for the skies and delivers a melodic stretch that’s probably his most lovely pop hook since, oh I dunno, ‘Loving the Alien’, I suppose? It’s absolutely gorgeous – people have even compared it to something out of Labyrinth, and no, they’re not being insulting. They love that film! The creepy stuff comes back for the ending, including a seemingly deliberately badly played flute, and the final result is at once grand, scary, beautiful, funny and extremely well produced and performed – the standard-rock stomp of much of The Next Day is nowhere to be heard here – Bowie’s brand new band have given his sound a right proper kick up the arse. Only Tony Visconti has returned from the previous album, and as ruthless as Bowie’s jettisoning of personnel can seem, it’s obvious that his new players are just what he needed.
‘Blackstar’ the song would have been even longer than ten minutes were there not a limit enforced by Apple over how long singles can be if they’re to made available from the iTunes store. Hmm. Seems a long way since The Orb managed to pull off releasing that forty-minute ‘Blue Room’ single, doesn’t it? Anyway, ten minutes is still magnificently epic, and there’s barely a second’s pause before ‘Tis a Pitteeeeee She Wuz a Whooooooore’, which, in its original B-side version was bloody good, but now has been given even more oomph – the drums really kick, Bowie gives it everything (his occasional yelps are reminiscent of the exclamations he’d deliver on underrated Earthling song ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’), occasional synth-twinkles are a pleasurable touch and all that saxy squonking make it a thrilling riot of noise and performance, and while I admit that I can really take or leave (mostly leave) the wilder, free-form end of jazz, its influence on this album is really exciting and totally fresh-sounding. There’s also been comparisons made with Scott Walker’s 1984-onwards approach of increasingly uncommercial and almost scary art-performance, but Bowie has never been one to completely relinquish his love for a killer tune, even at his most out-there – remember, even Low had a whole first side of skewed but still catchy-as-hell pop, while ‘Heroes’ refused to go out into that bleak night on the scary ‘Neukoln’, preferring to leave us dancing with the ebullient ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’. So even while there are songs that definitely remind me of Climate of Hunter (which to be honest, did itself have a song or two aimed at the charts) and Tilt, there’s something thrillingly accessible about this album. It’s got shedloads of hooks even while it’s being freaky as anything.
Second single ‘Lazarus’ is a dirge with a bassline that The Cure would have been dead proud of, and this is probably the least immediate song here, despite being one of its least outrageous/musically confrontational. It’s a melancholic respite, potentially one to drift by without leaving too much of an impact on first listen, but its beauty seeps through. Stick with it. ‘Sue (In a Season of Crime)’ is another reworking of a recent song, but while that original was a bit too much of an admirably performed, immaculately strange but nevertheless straight-up free-form jazz (pretty much Bowie pastiching the form), here it’s been given more of a Blackstar feel, and instead of Bowie just aping jazz, though it’s the sound of jazz taken ’round Bowie Country. The song now sounds more like it belongs to him, and it’s all the better for it. Restless, wired and exciting – it’s simultaneously more assaultive than the original version but more accessible – more evidence of Bowie’s commercial/uncommercial tension.
The last three tracks are the ones that anyone who hasn’t heard Blackstar yet won’t have had any exposure to, and they are the album’s most secretly pleasurable. This is despite (wait – that’s because of) ‘Girl Loves Me’ being utterly deranged – the stalking, gently stomping groove is deliciously askance and seductively creepy. Bowie’s brilliant Polari-inflected lyrics, unhinged vocals and unforgettable ‘where the fuck did Monday go?‘ (this is definitely the most sweary song Bowie has ever released) refrain marks this one out as a genuinely moody and weird highlight. ‘Dollar Days’ is just plain gorgeous, mind you. The saxophone here is smoother, more melancholic and the song just has the haze of late night jazz bars – well, the kind of late night bars where alien spacecrafts hover overhead. The guitar near the end is understated but particularly beautiful. You may almost need to supress a tear of joy when the harmonica comes in on sighing, lovely final track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, because it sounds just like the one that was such a highlight on the beautiful ‘A New Career in a New Town’ from Low, which was a piece that frankly ached with nostalgia, future uncertainty and alienation – this dreamy new song sounds like it could have fit nicely on Heathen, one of many latter-day Bowie albums that was heralded as his Great Big Comeback before other things got in the way, be it so-so follow-ups, initial overexcitment turning to calmer, cooler receptions or simply personal situations in the life of David Bowie. Blackstar is different is that it actually follows up one of those Great Big Comeback albums, yet turns out to be even better than The Next Day in almost every way concievable. If you loved Bowie’s tremendous, if wildly messy (and given the lack of follow-ups, conceptually unsatisfying) 1995 1.Outside, then you’ll love the similar off-kilter approach but structurally far more concise and successful of this new work.
It’s too early to start lumping this one in with All Time Great Bowie Albums – my thoughts on this are too fresh and those seventies albums are too brilliant/canonical/close to my heart to even approach, but I’ll tell you this – Blackstar is a) a great album, b) a great Bowie album and c) what more do you want? The first two are more than enough.