Monthly Archives: January 2016

Review: David Bowie – Blackstar

blackstarcoverThe untimely death of David Bowie has made reviewing this album a tough task.  It’s hard to stay objective about it, or not see it through the lens of his demise.  I’m sort of forced to think back to how I felt about it listening on the weekend before.  So what follows is as best an assessment as I can make:

Like The Next Day before it, Bowie is in top form on this one.  It’s a four star album.  But Blackstar holds almost no musical similarity to its predecessor.  While TND definitely had one foot in the nostalgia camp, and plenty of songs that musically wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Ziggy Stardust era, Blackstar tends to reference very little in Bowie’s past; at a pinch perhaps drawing on some of his nineties work, but only tangentially.  Sonically, this is where a new Bowie album should be going – new territory – though in many ways, several of the songs sound much better in the context of the album than they do standing alone.

The two singles – the title track and Lazarus, are the outstanding anchors of the album, and if Bowie had recorded five other tracks of himself farting to pad it out, we’d still be calling this one of his greats.  Blackstar – all ten glorious minutes of it – is a creepy, occultic, Byzantine catacomb of a song that showcases all that was loved about him.  What dark and uncertain place is Bowie’s soul being dragged off to with his “passport and shoes”?  We are forced to ponder a slightly tongue-in-cheek assessment of his career as “a flash in the pan”, finally facing up to “the great I AM”.  And Lazarus – could there be a more fitting final single? – a slight and ordinary song when looked at as notes on a page is transformed in the hands of Bowie and Visconti into something truly transcendent.  That lonely guitar figure at the start, the mournful saxaphone, the garage band axe-thrash, the heartbreaking lyrics – Lazarus is truly the “Antiheroes”.  Instead of telling us that mere mortals can reach immortality “just for one day”, Bowie the immortal now reveals he is all too human, grasping at the last gasp of his fading life.

Quite naturally, the rest of the music struggles to compare to these two giants, and if you had to compare the album with The Next Day song for song, TND probably wins on consistency at least.  But there are certainly no bad songs here.  Tis a Pity She Was a Whore provides some heft that recalls the music of Black Tie White Noise, though it sounds like the B side it actually is.  Its best feature is the simply magical lyric “Man, she punched me like a dude!”  Sue, a single Bowie released last year that was probably his finest song in almost twenty years, is here shorn of its big band jazz arrangement in favour of rock guitar riffs that turns it into a drum and bass song, all but destroying everything that made it so engaging and special in the first place.  Girl Loves Me, sung in the Polari dialect and musically recalling, of all things, 1994’s Buddha of Suburbia, is proof that Bowie’s more interesting moments are not always necessarily his most magic ones.  And the album closes with the two most conventional songs on the album – pleasant enough ballads Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything Away, the latter of which is all but a rewrite of the title track to 1987’s stinker album Never Let Me Down!  Proof perhaps of Bowie’s enduring sense of humour?   Undoubtedly!  But there’s nothing boring or skippable here – there’s a real cohesiveness and completeness to this album that makes it worthy of repeated listening.

Blackstar is undoubtedly Bowie’s most adventurous album since 1997’s Earthling, and with its two (for want of a better word) stellar singles, definitely his most rewarding listening experience since that time.  It’s a fitting epitaph to the career of one of the twentieth century’s greatest musical artists.

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David Bowie

After downloading and listening to Blackstar last week, I remember thinking how marvelous it was that David Bowie was still alive and releasing music.  I fantasized about the next ten years, and the sort of new stuff he would put out and give us.  I’d planned to write a review of the album for this blog.  I was going to do it on Monday.

“Where the f*ck did Monday go?”

These best-laid plans all got shattered when my wife came into the bedroom after I had just woken up on that day and told me the terrible news.  This amazing entertainer was no longer with us.

Outside of my faith and my family, I can’t think of a more important presence in my life than the music of David Bowie.  And yet, I’m not even 100% sure why.  What it might come down to is that he was so utterly subversive.  He took songs and genres, and then put little twists on them.  He delighted in undermining straight narratives.  He took shallow things, and made them deep, or even revealed their depth.  Conversely, sometimes he took very serious things and ripped them to shreds.

You can see this in glam rock.  Compare a song like T-Rex’s Planet Queen with Bowie’s own Starman.  They’re both great songs about aliens coming to earth, but Marc Bolan’s is essentially just a silly story.  Not Bowie’s.  There’s something darker and more sinister going on, with an alien who’s afraid to “blow our minds” that only “the children” will understand.  He would also do the same thing with the music itself, melding different styles and genres.  On practically every Bowie album there’s always something musically unexpected – that you wouldn’t normally hear with someone playing a straight bat – from Mike Garson’s bonkers jazz-piano, to Brian Eno’s weird production, right through even to the big band jazz of last year’s single Sue (In a Season of Crime).  More than anyone else, he would give you the thrill of the new, tingling in your spine as you heard something unexpected.

In short, Bowie took Lou Reed’s original idea of turning a pop song into art, and took it through the stratosphere into pop megastardom.  Pop music isn’t supposed to be like that.  It’s supposed to be dumb and shallow so people can dance to it and get laid.  Well, people still danced to Bowie and got laid, but even on Let’s Dance, he’s still singing about the apocalypse, and his heart breaking in two as you tremble like a flower in his arms.  Bowie was clever and subversive.  He invited us all to stop looking at the superficial and dig deeper.  Or even, as on Lucy Can’t Dance (a single written to diss Madonna that he chickened out of releasing at the last minute), to look at something “profound” and realise there’s nothing of substance there.

I think this is why I identify with Bowie so much.  I’ve never liked the superficial, consumerist, simplistic approach.  I want to think, and delve, and dig deeper, and that’s where Bowie and I connected.  Because that’s where the real emotions are – not on the surface, but in the depths.  More than anyone else, Bowie somehow got to those.  And people have written about Bowie’s appeal to the outsider, and yes, that is a big part of it too.  Turns out there are a lot of us outsiders.  “The music is outside”.

It’s so hard to name favourite bits of work, but I will mention a few.  I still think Rebel Rebel is the greatest pop single ever released.  The Top of the Pops Starman appearance that made him a star is without peer.  Sweet Thing/Candidate from Diamond Dogs has so much drama and pathos you want to cry.  StationToStation in its entirety – my favourite album.  Low, his most innovative work, and one of the most innovative albums of all time.  The video to Boys Keep Swinging.  Let’s Dance.  Absolute Beginners.  The bit in the Tin Machine song I Can’t Read where he rages “Andy, where’s my fifteen minutes?!”  Outside, the first Bowie album I ever bought.  Dead Man Walking.  I’m Afraid of Americans.  Strangers When We Meet.  Sue.  Dang it, there’s too much stuff – so much wonderful stuff!  I’ve read a few comments complaining that Bowie lacks real emotion in his work and it was all an act, he was just playing a character.  They must have cloth ears – Bowie played those characters to get to the real man (or woman) in all of us.  His songs are an excavation of our hearts to find the feels.

So long, David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie.  I will be praying for you.  Thank you for all that you gave me, and everyone who loves your music.  You are truly one of the greatest artists of all time.  May your memory be eternal!