David Bowie has no business being this good so late in his career.
When his new album dropped earlier today, I was mildly excited – I’m always interested in what Bowie is up to and, after his last album (a solid, though hardly great, late-period outing), I figured he still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
Fishing my good headphones out from the music box and sitting back on the couch, the first thing I fired up was the brand new single, “Lazarus.”
Which was the precise moment I realized that this wasn’t the attempted return-to-form of New Day, but rather the work of an artist with something more to say.
I put my drink down and sat up, curious and surprised. It was 40 minutes until I reclined again.
“Lazarus,” I’ve since figured out, is the only hook-laden track on Blackstar — OK, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” also makes use of a hook, though its main purpose seems to be to keep the song from flying apart at the seams. But that hook – traded back and forth between misty foghorn saxophones, threateningly woozy horns, and angrily lumbering guitars – alternately lulls and then pounds you into attention. It’s a song that can’t decide whether it’s jazz, rock, or something altogether different. And gives absolutely zero fucks in any case.
Which is a common theme on Blackstar: not adhering to convention.
Bowie has gathered himself a supporting cast that makes no sense on paper – and even less on record. With some of New York’s finest jazz players (a quintet led by saxophone player Donny McCaslin), every-era Bowie wingman, Tony Visconti, and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy all on board, the proceedings take some very strange turns indeed.
The nature of the record is best summed up by its first track – the eponymous “Blackstar” that crawled out of nowhere as a single last November. Scrambling out of the gate with flutes and Radiohead/Aphex Twin-esque skittering drums (which have Murphy’s fingerprints all over them), Bowie announces himself in almost Gregorian fashion. His chanting melody is soon accompanied by a synth string section that wanders from cathedral to Moroccan marketplace to Hollywood symphony pit. Electronic beats throb, drums fight each other for a dominant time signature, and then a saxophone manages to somehow envelop the whole menagerie in its smoky, late night embrace.
And that’s all before the song takes sharp turns into gates-of-Heaven balladry, Young Americans-tinged plastic soul, Davy Jones (no, the other Davy Jones) pop, and sinister jazz rock.
We then find ourselves back where we started – though this time the electronic backbeats are gone. The soaring chants and strings are counterbalanced by thudding 4/4 drums and an eventual horns-meets-flute lurching breakdown.
It’s less a song than an experience. But so then is the album – less a collection of traditional “songs” than an experiment in genre introduction and bending. It’s the most out-there that Bowie has been since Low.
Those involved with the project claim that the record was influenced by hip hop artist, Kendrick Lamar. And while it doesn’t share the same urban ethic or Parliament-inspired funk as Lamar, it does celebrate some of the same eclecticism. Also listed as influences? Pastoral ambient electro-duo, Boards of Canada (themselves students of Bowie’s experimental Berlin albums), the aforementioned LCD Soundsystem, and the pure jazz of Bowie’s backing band.
Each of these influences get its turn – and usually in competition with each other. Each offer accompaniment to a different side of the still-charming, still-charmed chameleon singer/songwriter. And each help produce the best Bowie album in years, if not decades.
“Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” pairs elemental drum and bass rhythms with a wall of horns and then tarts them up with synths that both gurgle and glisten. “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” is propelled by sinew (bass) and muscle (drum) that manage to hold together its otherwise free-form flights of EDM/IDM (electronic dance music/intelligent dance music). “Girl Loves Me” experiments with hiccuping electronica. The last two tracks, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” finally find the album settling into a more song-oriented vibe — though, even then, it continues to blur elements of electronica, dance, guitar rock, jazz, and pop.
It’s no secret that Bowie is only as strong as his collaborators — Messrs. Ronson, Visconti, Eno, et al are evidence of that. On Blackstar, the musicians sound hungry and capable of effortless innovation. Their energy and swagger propel the recording into something stronger than usually seen by mainstream artists in the twilight of their careers.
Lyrically, Bowie is even more cryptic than usual — though there are certainly hints that this is a summation or wrapping up of his career. The latter half of Blackstar, for instance, seemingly finds him offering a list of what he is (and isn’t) while assuming a few bragging rights along the way. “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” reminds us of his experiments in gender fluidity and fascination with sex. With “Lazarus” he muses about his own mortality — and of the image that will far outlive his body. While the music propels him forward in artistry, the words seem to be a creative look back.
I’m not going to lie: There is no way that the David Bowie of 2016 will ever match the sustained creativity and intensity that was produced in his prime. But there are a number of moments on this album that briefly reach those heights. There are plenty of others that will both challenge and exceed the efforts of his modern-day acolytes. Really, it’s a damned good album by anyone’s standards.
And the reason is simple. For the first time in a long time, Bowie doesn’t try to be the artist he once was. But instead the one he wants to be.
The results are rewarding. And worth repeated listens.