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ALBUM OF THE YEAR: David Bowie’s Blackstar

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BY STEVE VOLK In the spring of 2014, an old man walked into 55 Bar, a small West Village club where a particularly hot jazz band was holding forth, less bop than modern experimentation, an outfit that churned and surged in exotic, ecstatic bursts. The old man stayed awhile, at a table near the stage, letting the music wash over him along with everyone else, anonymous except that he wasn’t. Only after he left did the whispers start. “Was that David Bowie?” We now know the answer was yes—the old codger spaceman was out, on a Sunday night no less, looking for a new lightning bolt to ride. The result is ★ (Bowie has gone full symbol on us now) or Blackstar, a work—it deserves that frame—that is by turns gripping, confounding and haunting: Dubbed a “rock star ghost” by Rolling Stone, this really is Bowie as shade, popping out of the ether to grab us by the lapels and say something deeply meaningful, even urgent, in language that veers from the plain to the downright runic, as if Marley himself arrived to tell us that Christ is risen and boy is he rarrrffgg!

Sonically, Blackstar is shockingly fresh within the Bowie canon. Previously, he’s incorporated tastes of jazz like a spice—flavoring tracks like “Aladdin Sane” and “Bring Me The Disco King.” But for close fans with knowledge of his biography the whole enterprise sounds like a sort of homecoming. Bowie’s older half-brother Terry first turned him on to jazz as a kid, introducing Bowie to his first musical instrument, the saxophone. For Bowie to not just return to the sax—which he has occasionally played himself on record, in a charming, wheezy style—but place it so relentlessly up front in the music, smacks then of elegy. Bowie’s half brother was mentally ill, and eventually committed suicide. And Blackstar is like that—a dynamic push into the new with a dramatic, theatrical sense that we are so very fragile, that sooner or later all of us performers will die.

Producer Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longest running musical foil, has said they incorporated jazz musicians to take the new album away from rock and roll. Perhaps contradicting himself a tad, or at least revealing the essential sonic contrast that makes Blackstar so engaging, he’s also told interviewers the trick is that they got jazz musicians to play rock and roll. The musicians involved, a quartet led by modern jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin, are world class, and Bowie and Visconti give them room to do their thing, but only in service to tautly constructed songs, a concise seven of them, in 41 briskly paced minutes. All of the songs seem to live in this tension, between structure and brief runs of improvisation, order and chaos. The title track, released last November with an accompanying video of creepy sci-fi, is nearly 10 minutes long, and can properly be described as “sprawling” and “epic” yet tight as a drumhead. The opening and closing sections are all portent and murmur, with Bowie singing in the same gauzy register as a curtain unfurling. Underneath him a drum n bass rhythm skitters, like a spider, across the floor. “On the day of execution,” Bowie sings in the opening passage, “only women kneel and smile.” But the chill gives way to a center section that is a pure soul ballad, at once gorgeously melodic, unsettling and subversively funny. “I’m not a gang-ster… I’m not a pop star… I’m not a white star,” Bowie sings. “I’m a blackstar.”

The balance Bowie strikes, between menace and good humor, is startling. But the track never collapses under the weight of its own considerable ambition, and Bowie traverses the high branch he’s created like a panther. “’Tis a Pity She’s a Whore” is all whoop and whorl, from the right hook of an opening line, “Man, she punched me like a dude,” to the jazzy freakout of the song’s climax. The song originally appeared as a b-side, in demo form, executed by Bowie alone. Anyone who wants to get a sense of just what Bowie can produce without a collaborator should check out this “scratch” version, which is casually inventive and stirring. The jazz musicians here, however, elevate the plot to a whole new level. At one point McCaslin goes on a run so exhilarating that in a live setting it would undoubtedly draw shouts, and on the recording Bowie does—whooping and hooting, exulting in the cacophony.

“Lazarus,” the title song of the play Bowie currently has running off Broadway, is one of the masterworks here. Bowie sounds every inch of 69 years old, his age upon the day of Blackstar’s release, so much the better to carry over the song’s soaring climax and searing regret. When Bowie ends his own vocal contribution with the wistful, “Oh, I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me!” it’s the saxophonist who delivers on that promise. In a sense, Blackstar’s entire sound emerges from track four, “SUE (Or In A Season of Crime),” which Bowie released in a big band version in 2014, as the kick-off single to the career spanning collection Nothing Has Changed. For that version, Bowie collaborated with jazz composer Maria Schneider, who suggested he consider McCaslin for his next project.

Surprisingly, the jazz dial is turned down considerably on this new version. The result is trimmer, with the original’s shambling gait brought under control and the song itself seeming more fully realized as a noir tragedy. By now, upon the album’s actual release, enough reviews have already appeared of this new Bowie album for a rough consensus to develop—Blackstar is terrific—and begin repeating each other, quoting the same lyrics and, usually, ascribing them the same meaning. And it isn’t that any of that stuff is blatantly wrong (though some of it is); it’s just incomplete. The consensus take on the album is that, thematically, this is more a collection of vibrant songs than any kind of coherent statement, but that’s only true if you’re not keeping track. By the time “SUE” ends, we’ve been treated to execution, assault, bitter regret, longings for death and outright murder.

Our lives are shot through with anxiety and violence. And the album’s final tracks seem like an attempt to deal with that—to find solace amid all the pain. But Bowie has always specialized in crafting music that lives in part as a kind of grab-bag, so full of cultural, musical, artistic and historical references that he himself could not possibly keep track of them all. The Internet now is alive with strange conspiracy theories—no bullshit—that “Blackstar” is Bowie’s warning to Earth that we will soon be struck, catastrophically, by the hidden planet Nibiru. There is also conjecture over whether or not the track is “about” ISIS. Of course, it seems distinctly unlikely that a planet is hiding from us. And the ISIS suggestion, which comes from one of the musicians who played on Blackstar, who says Bowie told him as much, seems natural enough. But the song isn’t about ISIS in any linear sense. Instead, it’s about the issues the existence ISIS raises—about the corrupting power of religion, and its promise of salvation, the cult of personality, and by extension the very notion of celebrity.

That the track has caused such a stir, even drawing out the Nibiru-ists, is perhaps a sign of how tapped in Bowie is at the moment to the deep dark zeitgeist, alive with all our current, crawling anxieties.It’s also worth noting that, in scientific terms, a black star is thought to form from a star in slow collapse. “I’m a blackstar!” Bowie shouts, again and again, announcing his own mortality as a “dying” star. There is much more of interest there, and Bowie likely selected the ★ symbol for multi-layered reasons. For instance, a fundamental idea of quantum theory is that no “information” is ever obliterated. The information might be impossible to access if, say, a stone tablet is smashed to fragments no bigger than grains of sand. But the information is still there, in theory, in the grit. Of course, the information Bowie has provided—his music, his acting, his biography—will outlive him, too. But the concept of the dying star seems most important here, and adds a rich layer of meaning to the activity over on the website created for this project. At Imablackstar.com fans are invited to post pictures of themselves as black stars, to be locatable by perfect strangers with a mouse-click in the firmament of stars the site is slowly amassing.

Yes, we are all dying, but in the cult of Bowie we are reassured: Our information will remain. Of course, in the manner of a Bowie grab bag, so many interpretations are possible—and personal. You can try mine but your mileage might vary. The idea, it seems, is to give the listener some space to find whatever resonates with them in all the feints and allusions. That said, Blackstar seems particularly rich in this regard—a chronicling of hurt and healing, with stardust for good measure, a veritable universe of sound to find your way in. Blackstar is also grand enough that it seems to cast its light over Bowie’s new play, and his previous album, The Next Day, too. The story of that album also starts quietly, not with an old man in a bar but with two old men, talking.

One day in 2012 producer Tony Visconti got a phone call with a long awaited message. David Bowie was reaching out to him the usual way he’d done in the past when he wants to get on to a new album, saying something simple, like, “I’m ready.” By this time, however, there was nothing “usual” about Bowie’s work schedule. He hadn’t recorded a new album in 10 years. There were rumors he was dying of lung cancer. Paparazzi occasionally snapped a pic of him out in New York, dressed in a duffer’s cap and stylish shoes, buying takeout like any normal guy bringing home dinner for his model wife Iman.

But the rumors persisted. The Flaming Lips even released a track called “Is David Bowie Dying?” which, sadly, bore a title more compelling than the song. The long goodbye had gone on so long most people assumed he was done, retired for good. In June 2012, a writer with the Grantland website got a tip that Bowie was perilously near death. The rock and roll ghost had been born.

And then, announced first in an email to his old producer, he was back. On his birthday, on January 8, 2013, Bowie released a new song, the heartrending “Where Are We Now?”, with no fanfare whatsoever—just a video, simple in the extreme, posted on his website. This single song—one of the most straightforwardly pretty he’d ever written—triggered a deluge of appreciation, adulation and relief. By God, we’d missed him. In the couple of years since it’s become abundantly clear that the time away did wonders for Bowie’s reputation. He’d produced a run of strong albums in his late 40s and early 50s, largely producing yawns if not outright derision among critics. No one likes to admit when they were wrong, but in the long silence Bowie’s mid-career records started sounding pretty good; and his classic stuff had only strengthened its grip on the culture. The single heralded a whole new album, 14 songs deep, called The Next Day, and the entire experience, the sudden re-emergence of the pop star after years spent contemplating his death, turned the most mundane of music industry tasks, an album release, into performance art, moving people in ways they likely never expected. Clearly aware of what had happened, Bowie has managed to maintain that sense of mystery, and appreciation, his absence had created. He gives no interviews. He performs no concerts. The only choice for those wanting some David Bowie is to listen to his work.

The New York Times dubbed The Next Day Bowie’s “twilight masterpiece,” and it sounded mostly like a dam breaking. Ten years away had left the old man with a lot to say. But it was a bit of a mash-up, an act of recombinant art using his own past as the material. Bowie himself seemed to be seeking this. The album cover for the new record incorporated the iconic cover of his own “Heroes” into its design. The staggeringly good “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” ends with the martial drumbeat of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era classic “Five Years.” The title track sounds as if it was lifted directly from the sessions for 1980’s Scary Monsters. “If You Can See Me” picked up the drum n bass experimentation of Earthling precisely where Bowie had left off. That first haunting single, too, gained a bit of steam from its creator’s past, sounding like an older, more reflective man’s version of “Heroes.”

The result was that people were thrilled to hear him alive and healthy enough to do all the old things, but there was the creeping sense that this new record was not actually new. I bring this all up because Blackstar seems to exist almost as a reaction to that comeback record’s wistfulness and sentiment. Blackstar isn’t just a new sound, but a statement of intent—an announcement that, at 69, David Bowie is keenly aware of how little wick is left on the candle, but not entertaining any thoughts of retirement. In fact, he’s ready to keep exploring new territories with whatever light he has left.

“Girl Loves Me” is a strutting braggadocio, incorporating the made-up Russian slang (“Viddy well, little brother”) of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and Polari, a slang of gay british and theatrical subculture. The jazz guys are still there, but completely subservient at this juncture to the singer, who’s crowing of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” is a fantastic ear worm. At first listen it’s an extension of the ever-present menace in the first four tracks. Burgess’s droogs loved the ultraviolence, after all. But the chorus is tender, and suggests love as the source that stops us from constantly beating each other in the face. That hooted refrain, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” also perfectly describes where Bowie is right now: Ready to keep banging his supermodel wife, to create new art, to embrace each new week, only to look in the mirror, at his own aging visage, and find he is nearer to done. Where the fuck did Monday go?

“Dollar Days” suggests a peaceful resignation to that inescapable fact. “If I never see the English evergreens,” Bowie sings, delivering up one of the most beautiful melodies he’s ever composed, “it’s nothing to me.” McCaslin returns, but this is a Bowie song, and likely a deeply personal one at that—Bowie presenting himself as a man who still has goals he’s “running to,” but in what seems like a reflection of his youthful flirtations with Buddhism, is also prepared to let go of all his attachments, even to frame his hopes for the future as illusions. “It’s nothing to me,” he sings, “It’s nothing to see.”

Finally, the album closer, “I Can’t Give It All Away,” is a corker—incorporating a melody redolent of old timey, swellegant Sinatra pop (think Harold Arlen-style “That Old Black Magic”) and set off by jazzy explosions. Here, at the end, Bowie takes this one look back, fully sticking the landing on the entire album’s one moment of pure nostalgia—a stray harmonica blast that echoes an old classic from Low. The song he leverages, “A New Career in a New Town,” acts as a kind of dog whistle to close fans—this one’s for you!—and also suggests where he is as an artist, feeling himself to be right back where he was then, embarking on a new journey.

There are numerous possible takeaways from all of this. First, the album really does seem of a piece—in spiritual terms—with Lazarus, the off-Broadway play Bowie co-wrote, right now finishing its first run. Critics are right when they say it’s tough to follow. (A friend I saw it with perhaps described it best as “vibey.”) In broad terms, however, it’s easy enough to comprehend. The production is a sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth, the movie in which Bowie played Thomas Jerome Newton, a space alien here on earth to try and rescue his family back home. It’s filled with anxiety and violence, leavened by moving attempts to connect and love, just like the songs on both The Next Day and Blackstar. And toward the end, Newton—played by actor Michael C. Hall—launches into an emotional tirade about his imagination, the creations of his mind, as offering him his—anybody’s—one real respite.

The plot is non-liner and multi-layered, and we might take any number of meanings from the mélange. But one interpretation that seems clear enough to me is that it captures our, Bowie’s, the human, Impulse To Art. Bowie has often been typified as a kind of careerist, rather than a Springsteen-like true believer in the power of rock and roll. But music, he’s telling us—in his songs, and in this play, where the Newton character turns to his record player for solace—has acted as a curative. The last track on Blackstar, “I Can’t Give It All Away,” seems to grasp all of this and more. “I know something’s very wrong,” he sings, “The pulse returns to prodigal sons.” Caught in that old black magic, Bowie returns from death, Ghost Bowie, Lazarus in deed, because it’s the creeping feeling that something is “very wrong” that sets him back to work, looking for the solace of a new creation. The track also directly confronts his current personae, as the artist we meet only through his work. It’s clear that Bowie understands full well the advantageous position he’s gained by declining to perform or give interviews. And on the surface, “I Can’t Give It All Away” could be interpreted as a statement that his current media strategy isn’t really a media strategy at all.

It’s about survival.

He simply doesn’t want to give as much of himself as performing and submitting to endless media questions requires. But another way of interpreting the song is that if he did give himself away, fully, he couldn’t really communicate with us at all. In this sense, keeping himself a bit remote from us is also his survival strategy as an artist. Try looking back through Bowie’s interviews from the 90s and early 2000s on YouTube. He’s charming, funny, often eccentric in a decidedly English sort of way, but essentially normal. He doesn’t strike theatrical poses, act the snob, or speak in words so big only academics can understand him. It’s hard to reconcile such a jokey, approachable bloke with the highly theatrical art rock he was creating. The once otherworldly seeming being we encountered in his youth had given way to the real guy, an entertainer and artist. Of course, anyone who thinks an artist’s personality must sync perfectly with their creative output seems a tad naïve. But the disconnect between the awesome romance and high strangeness of Heathen and the happy, laughing Brit who showed up on late night chat shows to promote it was jarring.

We only hear from Bowie now through his art. He also seems weird again. This hardly seems a coincidence. Problem solved. Blackstar might also act as a reason to reconsider the merits of some of his earlier work. Some of this new stuff does recall the kind of wiry, inventive music he served up on Outside. More directly, Bowie was almost universally blasted for his drum n bass and junglist experiments on 1997’s Earthling. “How sad, chasing a trend, straining, at 50, for artistic relevance.” But now that 19 years have passed and he’s still utilizing those same rhythms to startling effect, could it be that he recorded Earthling because, well, he really resonated with that music?

Bowie’s guitarist at the time, Reeves Gabrels, reported that he and Bowie had spent late nights on the tour for Outside listening to drum n bass, awed at its energy, and wondering how they might incorporate it into a pop music setting. The scene he describes suggested real passion rather than craven calculation. And it’s perhaps telling that while Earthling didn’t do well on the charts Bowie did release a dance song under the pseudonym Tao Jones Index. The result, predictably, is that all of the children boogied. “Pallas Athena” became an underground hit, rising up Billboard’s club charts. And the lesson seems clear: At that point in time, Bowie’s new music seemed more appealing when it didn’t carry all the baggage, all the expectations, associated with his name. In that sense, the 10 years we went between records, the roughly 12 years and counting we’ve gone now since Bowie granted an extensive interview, has reset our relationship with the demigod. In the silence, Bowie and the wider culture were able to work their way back to each other again. And now, when he sings, we can actually hear him, an old man singing gorgeous new songs in the twilight.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review originally ran last January, between the release of the album and David Bowie’s death.

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