Released January 8th, 2016 on ISO/RCA/Columbia Records
In 2013 David Bowie emerged from ten years of quiet to release The Next Day, an album that recalled his work with the Berlin Trilogy of Low, Heroes, and Lodger without ever actually being as wildly experimental or as unsettling as those three albums. Despite this, it was easily the best album Bowie had released in a long time (personally since Earthlings, for most people since 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)) and gave birth to discussions of a new creative renaissance for him. This idea tends to ignore the fact that, aside from the relatively regrettable period of 1983-1987, Bowie has been in a constant state of reinvention. After his pop period, he became a hard rock dynamo (Tin Machine), a purveyor of sax-soaked New Jack Swing and rave rhythms (Black Tie White Noise), an industrial-etched grunge freak (Outside), and a jungle and drum n bass ingenue (Earthling) before settling into a somewhat more sedate period of more traditional pop/AOR songs.
Still, despite this restless nature, there’s nothing in the Bowie catalog quite like Blackstar.
To say it’s “experimental” is to miss the point. To call it “jazz fusion” is to massively generalize what’s going on here. There’s saxophone all throughout the album, in a way that there hasn’t been since 1993, but it’s not jazz-sax in the sense that one normally considers it. Longtime collaborator Carlos Alomar once likened Bowie’s sax playing to the brushstrokes of an impressionist painter, and this is especially true of the sax usage on Blackstar. Between Bowie and his new lieutenant Donny McCaslin, the saxophone is used in unsettling ways throughout the record, as a tonal voice rather than as the typical flurry of notes or jazzy finger-snapper. In fact, “unsettling” is the best way to describe the album, and in that it’s the first Bowie album to truly evoke unease and contemplation since Scary Monsters. So there. It’s his best since Scary Monsters. People have been using that line to describe Bowie albums since Black Tie White Noise but if we’re really going to examine the man’s discography (and I already have) then it’s more in line with being his best since Heroes. More to the point, it’s not quite like anything else, so comparing it to previous albums is almost a useless exercise. “Blackstar” is nearly ten minutes of atonal noise, thoroughly modern percussion, unsettling lyricism, odd voices, and a clean vocal section that feels like it’s the straight man to the experimentation going on around it. “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is a stellar Bowie song in the tradition of stellar Bowie songs – a more menacing take on something like “Beauty And The Beast”, let’s say – and “Dollar Days” is akin to that, only in the form of a ballad like “Word On A Wing”. “Lazarus” is structured so that every line is punctuated by bursts of sax and distorted guitar, lending it weight and unease; the reworked version of “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” makes what was previously an interestingly curious single into a something altogether more gritty, as though the group decided to take the jazzy feel of the original out of the club and into the dark and rainswept streets. “Girl Loves Me” kicks along like the teeth-bared Bowie of the late 1970s and returns to his love of strange languages (Nadsat, from A Clockwork Orange, and Polari, a slang among gay men in Britain in the 1950s) as well as his previous techniques of Burroughs-esque cut and paste. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the most straightforward cut on the album, a Bowie crooner like he’d fallen into on Heathen or Reality, although it is far beyond anything that was featured on either (except maybe “Bring Me The Disco King”)
Blackstar does something more than merely prove that Bowie still has it. It presents a worthy addition to the legend that has been created around him. It’s as good as Station To Station, Low, Heroes, or really anything else he’s recorded, and as able to stand on its own.