The 10-year long absence from the limelight clearly didn't dim singer David Bowie's sense of guile or invention. That was clearly evident with the sudden reappearance with the utterly brilliant The Next Day
which pilot single "Where Are We Now?" appeared from nowhere on his birthday and delighting many people along the way. In a career that has lasted for 50 years, Bowie has always refused to be pigeonholed and with Blackstar
that is set to continue. Many years into his recording career, David Bowie is still making music that he wants to make and like all great artists, he is making a kind of music that only he can make.
The anticipation of awaiting the new album and the selective spreading of information about it and its nature has had people buzzing for months prior to the album's release. Three years after introducing the single "Where Are We Now?" on his 67th birthday, here comes another surprise in the form of an album released again on his 69th birthday. Unlike the previous The Next Day,
which involved almost the same band of people that worked on Heathen
where the songs still echoed the sounds from these two records and felt like a continuation, Blackstar
is totally something else. Blackstar is still further down an unbeaten path and it immediately challenges.
The first taste of Blackstar
came through the eerie video for the title track which was made by Johan Renck, the director of The Last Panthers
series. Its opening credits and the trailer featured a two-minute snippet of the song. In the video Bowie plays a doomed preacher and the video is full of dark and occult imagery that only deepens the mystery. This 10-minute opus uses washes of long, flowing and hypnotic portentous synths that create dark Arabic overtones. The hypnotic latticework of dark overtones plays in synch with processed whispered vocals playing over shimmering and tribal beats. Bowie's lyrics are dreary, cryptic and nihilistic: "On the day of execution, on the day of execution, lonely women kneel and smile" or "Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose to leave him and stepped aside."
The protagonist is an embodiment of unspoken and nihilistic despair. The whole song is theatrical and the puzzling, but vivid nihilistic imagery, is designed in such a way so it could wring shades of meaning from various lyrical fragments. Much like the True Detective
series it is so laden with literary references, which are often vague and without any direct clues to anything that would unify those references. Actually the term "Black Star" can be found in the Robert W. Chambers' collection of short stories "The King in Yellow" which was central to the first season of True Detective
"Strange is the night where black stars rise, And strange moons circle through the skies, But stranger still is Lost Carcosa."
As the interpretation is open the burden of analyzing and explaining every aspect would be suited for a college thesis. There is something tantalizingly hinted at, something lurking beyond the margins, but it's never fully revealed. Bowie twists the words, stretches the vowels and would glide up and down his register. But mid-song there is a change of pace and the melodic chord pattern feels like ray of sunshine before concluding the song with various accordant resolutions:
I can't answer why (I'm not a gangster), But I can tell you how (I'm not a film star), We were born upside-down (I'm a star star), Born the wrong way 'round (I'm not a white star), (I'm a blackstar, I'm not a gangster I'm a blackstar, I'm a blackstar I'm not a pornstar, I'm not a wandering star I'm a blackstar, I'm a blackstar)
Actually, it's what isn't there that makes this song so appealing. Beyond the disturbing images in the video, as he has always had a knack for eeriness in his videos, starting with "Heart's Filthy Lesson" which is full of disturbing imagery and art mutilations, the song is still a marvel to behold. Many have traversed this road of using the bizarre, but there's no mistaking his work for anyone else's.
Despite the ongoing silence when it comes to the promotional front, Bowie has been active creatively both in the studio and off. Prior to the release of Blackstar
he co-wrote a play named Lazarus with writer Enda Walsh which is based on the story about Thomas Newton, the infamous character that Bowie played in 1976' film The Man Who Fell to Earth.
The play, directed by Ivo van Hove, features both old, re-arranged songs by Bowie and new songs, including the title track, "Lazarus" can be found here. "Lazarus" is sang from the viewpoint of Newton's character and one cannot withhold and to draw a parallel with the author himself. The whole mood is dark and confessional. It is as if he is talking through the character about himself in his own death bed. The lyrics tell that he has experienced everything he could have experienced in life. Now he is awaiting for his own imminent death.
Much has been said about Blackstar
being a free jazz or free improv-influenced record and that is not entirely true nor entirely false. Bowie has always had a knack for choosing interesting, adventurous and very able musicians to work with and who are very adept to work/improvise in various settings. The exploratory artist in him has led Bowie to employ the services of such unruly sidemen, but not to flatter him, but to challenge him. On this record, he uses the services saxophonist Donny McCaslin's jazz quartet, but to great effect, and the result is a genredefying music that is a crazy mélange of musical styles, beats, textures and where the sonics are equally important as the melodies. Bowie provides direction, but the musicians here deserve just as much credit for the overall feeling of the record as they engage in any sonic challenge thrown to them. It's through improvisation that a group of musicians can find the freedom to explore musical ideas that they normally view as incidental to the process of composition. But despite the vanguard players Blackstar
is not a free jazz, nor avant-jazz record. It's a Bowie record.
Some of the first hints of Bowie heading to this direction came with a track "Sue (or In A Season Of Crime)" on the Nothing Has Changed
compilation which he recorded first with Maria Schneider's orchestra (and was a single released on Record Day). Its tortured vocals sang over wild harmonies and the shards of orchestral noise and dark overtones defied any previous conception of jazz and rock fusion. The new version of the song is bolstered by more propulsive beats, menacing bass, and plush textures. Its improvised nature and the unrefined and nightmarish soundscapes indicate it could have easily found its place among the songs on Outside.
Bowie is front and center here which provides a sort of melodic stability, as the music dances, darts, and scratches around him.
Equally feverish is "Tis a Pity She is a Whore," which was a b side to "Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)." The title is taken from a play from the 1600s by John Ford and the lyrics explore the "the rawness of the First World War." It's fierce and unsettling, and a real kick in the head. The beat that drives the song closely resembles beats that drive older songs of his such as "I'm Deranged" on Outside
or "You've been Around" on Black Tie White Noise
(or Brian Eno's "Fractal Zoom" from Nerve Net
Many details indicate the influences of latter day singer Scott Walker and his shadow looms large on most of these songs. Both artists have a talent for enigmatic lyrics and disharmonic eruptions which create the same dramatic effects and menacing music. But that area where they thread is a commonplace. In Brian Eno's 1995 diary "A Year of a Swollen Appendices" there is a discussion and a relief that Outside
does not thread in the same waters as that year's record Tilt
by Walker. While Scott's daring creations are often off-putting and usually alienate listeners, Bowie's talent for drama and melodic hooks achieves an opposite and intriguing effect.
What is interesting on this record is the hybridization of completely novel forms with an abundance of rhythmical delicacies over which Bowie's voice cascades, floats and hovers. The time signatures constantly shift, simultaneously displaying signs of inventiveness and vitality. "Girl Loves Me" is a five-minute playful bliss with Bowie singing "Where did Monday Go?" "Dollar Days" is probably the most conventional song here. Played on an acoustic guitar, it has several melodic motifs and is a nice ballad. The set ends with "I Can't Give Everything Away," a song built on pulsating beats, where Bowie shapes the musical dynamics with his characteristic croon. For all the overall bleakness on this record, these last songs end the record in a mysterious and less menacing manner. Blackstar
makes references to many aspects of Bowie's illustrious career, but most notably to Outside.
Both records are rooted in group improvisations and there are literary narratives filled with various characters that inhabit these songs. Outside
was a crime fable or "A nonlinear Gothic drama hypercycle." Both brim with lyrical ambitions and ideas (with a deft use of the Verbalizer cut and paste software) and share dark and luxuriant textures. The only difference is Bowie was still in the mood to explain his ambitious work in interviews then, and this time, he isn't, which leaves the door for the wildest interpretations possible. Investigating the abyss is what this record is about and finding a concrete explanation at its bottom is beside the point.
The album is engaging on other fronts as well. Art direction duties are in the more than capable hands of British designer Jonathan Barnbrook whose designs have adorned other past releases by Bowie. The front cover features the mysterious Blackstar
while the overall aesthetic is minimalistic, stark and mysterious. Inside it's an absorbing gallery of art photography, graphic design, and horoscope like connected wordings. His designs are further spread on various promotional billboards and social media campaigns.
It is really rare to find artists working at their creative peaks well into their sixties, but it is ever rarer when an artist is releasing a challenging and radical work. Bowie has forged his own idiosyncratic path into the wilderness of his own art and is doggedly following that path. His silence is actually helping Blackstar
to communicate its intricacies and heaviness to a wider audience. Blackstar
does not cut ties to his own past but it honors his own restless and illustrious history. It sums up the many traits that people love bout Bowie himselfa work by someone who has never stopped progressing and who has carved his own niche that is equally challenging and enjoyable.