Monday, January 4, 2016
When David Bowie emerged three years ago with a new album (The Next Day) after a decade of virtual radio silence it caught everyone by surprise. Quite a feat for the pop/rock visionary: his entire career has been based on daring shock value complimenting his brilliant musical output. But the choice of Where Are We Now as lead single suggested a calmer, tamed Bowie, an old fartsy image to go along with his advancing age. Personally, I feared he was turning more into Leonard Cohen and less like Tom Waits. Okay, that’s a bit unfair to all three men but this is the man who gave the world Ziggy Stardust and androgyny to the music industry as a tool of fabulousness, so irrespective of his age, the stakes are always high.
In my summation of that album, I noted it “brims with shocking ferocity while revisiting his heyday of the 1970s but not stealing from it.” And listening to it now, this still holds true. Bowie has always had a genius for matching lyricism appropriately with vocals, as evident on the entire DNA of If You Can See Me but for his trademark intensity, only You Feel So Lonely You Could Die truly matched what came before it.
No such restraint with Blackstar, as evident by the title track (also the lead single). Released in November, the track is a creepy reminder of the visionary Bowie is: it’s a three-tier track that starts out with a subtle jazzy texture and him mumbling over abstract lyrics before mutating into a darker, funkier chant, “I’m not a pop star/ I’m a black star…” repeated sublimely until the track peters out. In short, fantastic Bowie is back.
It’s the sore thumb standout but the remaining six tracks that complete the album are not filters by any means, instead they’re jazz/pop tracks that move with ease and groovy pace. Two are particularly phenomenal: Tis A Pity She Was A Whore is Bowie like we haven’t heard in ages, almost drunk-raving mad with a propulsive electronic beat juxtaposed to blissful horns. The frantic beats and his atonal vocal work shouldn’t go so well together but damn if it doesn’t shoot its own load successfully. What makes this so stunning is the fact that this is a superior reworking of a track he did two years ago that served as a B-side to another song included on Blackstar (Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)), almost as if he revisited them and realized the switch was needed. Besides, no one can spin a frantic piece of pop like Bowie—well ever since Prince lost his way—and wiggle out of it just as frantically as he went in. There’s also I Can’t Give Everything Away, where an ethereal groove plays the perfect foil to his, “seeing more and saying less” scowl. As the closing song, we can see how it fits into the new Bowie reality.
The other songs on the album all benefit from Donny McCaslin’s tremendous saxophone work and the jazz team he carried with him, both working in tandem to be the album’s other clear choices of MVP. It’s also great to hear Bowie experiment with drum ‘n bass and let on that Kendrick Lamar influenced the album. One can’t help think the ending chorus of the title track was indeed a play on the rising prominence of the rapper merging into a global superstar. Either way, there’s no bigger compliment for a musician to get sake for Bob Dylan saying the same thing.
In avoiding making another rock album—by producer Tony Visconti’s own admission—David Bowie has surreptitiously turned into a new type of star at 69, the type that eludes the folly of his peers because he’s not trying to sound cool, he just fucking is cool. And that’s by not committing the often-made mistake of ripping his former self off or fronting with whichever flavor of the month musician is around. No, Bowie has simply reinvented himself and trusted that we’re open to his ongoing evolution. This lack of cynicism or chart-awareness matches his entry in pop culture and it’s clearly how our lovable Ziggy intends to ride out in the end.