Artist: David Bowie
Record Label: ISO/ Columbia
Release Date: 8/1/2016
The Master returns with a strange and idiosyncratic but beautifully relatable and human experience
There's a bit during American comedian Reginald D. Hunter's Live At The Apollo set from a few years ago where he talks about turning 40. He mentions the kind of inherent introspection that (apparently) comes with arriving at middle age, and the invariably mountainous task of working out what's left to achieve. Now post-70 years of age, David Bowie has enough to ruminate on. Like many elderly men not ready to even think about slowing down though, on Blackstar, his 25th solo full-length, there's a sense of keenness for the future as well as a deep mining of the past.
Although the first couple of listens of Blackstar may seem like Bowie at his most outlandish, absurd and debauched, it's purely him at his most expressionistic; analysing past choices and events and trying to work out what the next step is and maybe even how long he's got left to achieve it.
If his last album, 2013's The Next Day was him embedding his classic song-writing ability before delving deeper into his psyche, then Blackstar is his first full-on foray into his actual comfort zone. Structurally it recalls his '70s heyday; the 7 track, sometimes extenuated song-length oeuvre recalls the likes of Station To Station. Compositionally though the persuasion is almost post-modern. It tantalisingly straddles a weird alternate reality, somewhere between glitzy, honky-tonk New York and the dystopian vision of his 1986 film Labyrinth. The 10-minute title track which begins proceedings, for example, is complete with acid squelches and distant but resonant orchestration, all presided over by indulgent sax solos and understated prophecy from Bowie as he slurs "on the day of execution, only women needn't smile".
If one was to be lazy one might suggest that lyrically Bowie has taken a leaf out of later-era Scott Walker's book, but the sense of time and personal strife is far more idiosyncratic than that. On ''Tis a Pity She Was a Whore' he continually suggests that the world of excess he delved in to (and all it's culminating regrets) were "my curse, I suppose". On 'Lazarus', which sounds curiously like a slightly more organically textured Wild Beasts song, he sounds both lost and depraved. "I've got scars that can't be seen... Everybody knows me now" he mourns before becoming more specific in his imagery; "When I arrived in New York I was living like a king... I was looking for your ass".
On the previously released 'Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)' which musically is like modern Breaks done with guitars and old school, hallucinogenic grit, he seems to be referencing the well documented health battles he's been fighting for the past few years as he sings "Sue... The clinic called... The X-Ray's fine". One might argue that his singular, masterful experimentation on this song alone, let alone the album, is a signifier of his fiery strength.
The loaded connotations of 'Dollar Days' span the width and depth of his mind palace, at all times both ambiguous but rigorous. "I'm dying to push their backs against the grain and full them all again and again" he songs in the chorus. Is Bowie finally aware of his legacy and identity? Does he regret the Americanisation of his career, or is it the distant shores of Britain that he's "dying to forget"?
Although Blackstar is a piece of work deeply rooted in memory it's almost always voyeuristic in it's underlying regard for the future. There's a deep sense of pathos throughout the record that seems as though Bowie has been more inclusive of the listener this time around. He's taking one on a journey, but this time he's inviting them to sit beside him and aid him in mapping out the road ahead. It's for that reason that the album is consistently moving, exciting and, perhaps most resonantly of all, human.
Key Tracks: 'Lazarus', 'Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)', 'Dollar Days'
For Fans of: Bryan Ferry, Gary Numan