Is David Bowie’s ★ (pronounced Blackstar) the first contender for ‘album of 2016’? Bowie’s 25th outing is released on 8 January – when he turns 69. Beware, Internet.
Bowie rematerialised in 2013 after a decade’s supposed retirement, the single Where Are We Now? also premiering on his birthday. He followed with The Next Day – a modern alt-rock album that was nominated for the Mercury Prize, only to lose to James Blake’s Brian Eno-assisted Overgrown. Yet Blackstar, launching with that magnificent 10-minute titular suite, is something else altogether. It’s a rogue post-dubstep album. Blackstar transgresses trends – but is all the more contemporary for it.
At just over 41 minutes, and with seven tracks, Blackstar is a spectacularly subversive, shifting work that affirms Bowie’s eternal cool. He is the Starman. This futurist, avant, maximalist record is synchronous with Blake, Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Blackstar sounds like the day after “the next day”. And that is its concept.
For Blackstar, Bowie, long based in New York, liaised with the city’s underground jazz musicians – notably saxophonist Donny McCaslin. He encountered McCaslin while recording the one-off Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) with the Maria Schneider Orchestra ahead of 2014’s counter-anthology Nothing Has Changed. McCaslin is band leader on Blackstar – and features prominently. Bowie loves the saxophone (check his own hyper playing on 1993’s Jump They Say).
Alas, the instrument is unfashionable in popdom – blame Kenny G and ’80s excess. Still, McCaslin is no traditionalist, fusing freeform jazz and IDM – his LP Casting For Gravity, which Bowie dug, encompassed a Boards Of Canada remake. Then again, Bowie has reunited with Tony Visconti as co-producer – the American, 71, his on/off collaborator since 1969’s Space Oddity.
The experimental Blackstar has already been described as a continuation of Bowie’s fabled Krautrock-inspired Berlin Trilogy (Low/“Heroes”/Lodger) with Eno. In fact, the darkly nebulous title-track invokes his monumental opener on the earlier – and transitional – Station To Station. It’s a song within a song… Bowie has masterminded a sci-fi symphony with subliminal, glitchy beats, haunted by McCaslin’s ghost sax (and flute). Blackstar isn’t far from Carl Craig’s cult hi-tech jazz excursions as Innerzone Orchestra and The Detroit Experiment but, indirectly, it also nods to Sun Ra’s cosmic mysticism.
Nonetheless, Bowie’s alternately droned or soulfully-sung lyrics reveal the dystopian implications of religious worship – and the arbitrariness of faith (and possibly fame). Blackstar is being used as the theme to the European heist TV series The Last Panthers. In turn, the show’s director, Johan Renck, handled Bowie’s mesmerising, if spooky, video: Bowie portrays Major Tom, the astronaut introduced in Space Oddity, who’s now a martyr/messiah. Yeezus must have bugged out. Fortunately, in the YouTube era, the astute Bowie can issue such a renegade single, banishing the convention of radio edits.
Ultimately, as an album, Blackstar comes closest to Bowie’s most underrated project – the drum ‘n’ bass-grounded EART HL I NG. Back in 1997, some unfairly accused Bowie of opportunistic appropriation, not realising his increasing disregard for ‘relevance’. (Either way, Bowie subsequently performed on Goldie’s Saturnz Return.) Here, Bowie has reworked Sue… – less a murder ballad than violent sonic re-enactment, with jungle beats, à la EART HL I NG‘s Little Wonder, and anarchic arrangements only a punk poltergeist could provide. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy (who remixed The Next Day’s Love Is Lost) is on percussion. Sue…, Version 2.0, is as deliberately discordant as Blake’s The Wilhelm Scream.
It’s virtually a live remix. Bowie has likewise developed that single’s B-side, ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore – originally a home demo, it’s now wilder, with industrial guitar and breakbeats. McCaslin’s sax screams. Bowie’s opening line, “She punched me like a dude,” cleverly ironises the title’s male chauvinism.
Thematically, the latest single, Lazarus, exceeding six minutes, supports the title-cut, although Bowie wrote it for the new off-Broadway musical of the same name – a quasi-sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth, Nicolas Roeg’s cinematic adaptation of Walter Tevis’ sci-fi novel, in which he starred. The song? It’s Mancunian post-punk – with mournful sax. What might seem to be Blackstar’s most accessible number ain’t: Girl Loves Me, a midtempo with a funk(ish) bassline, has a chorus, but its slang-heavy lyrics are off-kilter – even flippant.
The Next Day saw Bowie acknowledge the push and pull between nostalgia and flux, rupture or transformation – the universal forces behind his discography. The postmodern auteur is partial to metatextuality (his mythic character Major Tom has endured for nearly as long as Doctor Who). But, if on The Next Day sentimentality prevailed, then Blackstar is ambiguous and speculative. Dollar Days is a pastoral ballad that harks back to Bowie’s late ’60s psychedelic-soul – the arrangements are lush, with piano and the Brit’s acoustic guitar. Bowie reflects on his expatriation: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see.” Songs Of Ambivalence, indeed.
Blackstar’s finale, I Can’t Give Everything Away, is a statement. These days the reclusive Bowie doesn’t give interviews (and doesn’t need to) and, for the first time, his album sleeve carries stark graphics but no image. The touring exhibition David Bowie is, which hit Melbourne last winter, bared both Bowie’s creative practices and meticulous chronicling of his own career. However, this “prodigal” star remains an enigma – one who, by assuming theatrical personas, invented the very idea of conscious or staged artistic reinvention.
I Can’t Give… reminds fans, media and intellectualisers alike that they’ll never know him. Bowie, crooning, powerfully utilises his lower vocal register – as he did on Station To Station’s cover of Wild Is The Wind, a homage to jazz rebel Nina Simone. Oh, and there’s a retro-nuevo guitar rip by Ben Monder.
The Bowie of Blackstar is defiantly free – liberated from expectations, even his own. He’s become the most transcendent of pop icons.
★ (Blackstar) is out January 8th, 2016. You can get a pre-order here.
Watch: David Bowie – Lazarus