Stan Deely on 12 Bowie albums in 12 months – Black Star
I think we all know the background story. Trailed by a couple of portentous doomy singles released in the preceding months. The album itself, released to great interest and critical acclaim, on January 8 2016 and then the announcement, two days later, of Bowie’s shocking unexpected death. I’m not going to go too factual on this one – Wikipedia, Nicholas Pegg, Chris O’Leary are available if you want all the background and biographical info etc. Nor am I going to focus too much on the lyrics and how much he was writing about/telling us/alluding to the cancer that was killing him at the time of recording. Instead, I am going to judge the album on its effect on me and how much I am likely to listen to it for pleasure rather than duty in the future.
And the answer is ‘Very likely’ A very digestible 7 tunes in 41 minutes helps. In its layout and pacing it seems to mirror the Station to Station template – Seven songs, leading off with a long and challenging title track, experimentalism mixed in with killer ballads.
Visconti’s clean production style, which I reckoned neutered The Next Day, works well here, framing wild jazzy saxophone skronkathons within a rigid rhythm section. In fact I would say alongside top notch singing from Bowie it’s the minimal yet insistent rhythm section which is the star of the album taming some of the wilder sounding melodies.
A brave start as lead off single and opening track. It’s cetainly not pop or easy listening and a contender for the most challenging thing he has ever recorded. I certainly struggled with this song for quite a while. I was put off initially by the ‘Gregorian monks sing falsetto’ main melody, atonal jazz stylings and lack of a pop tune however the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate the many little touches that make it a classic multipart mini opera a la Paranoid Android or Bohemian Rhapsody.
Over a fast flowing 10 minutes the song features amongst other things tinkling discordant organ, Scott Walkeresque vocals over a soft jazz shuffle which becomes more rigid and funky as the song progresses. One of the signature features of this album is challenging top line, whether vocal or saxophone, over warmer repetitive funky rhythms. A languid saxophone, the lead instrument throughout the album is introduced, giving the song a kind of Diamond Dogs ie Candidate/Sweet Thing melancholia. In the mix we have some Space Invader noises, random bleeps and other mad stuff. Jazz baby jazz. He was hinting at this on the last tracks of the two previous two albums and now he goes full on jazz crazy Daddio and this is just the opening section. The mid section is what was originally a different song. A space ballad, a bit like mid 90s’ rave The Orb or something. A falsetto vocal “I’m a Black Star” sounds a bit unsettling., multi voices, over motorik rhythm.
It took quite a few listens but then this really clicked for me. A classic. However I have to be in the mood for this one. Sometimes it’s just too much – an annoying art indulgence but other times it’s absolutely astounding. I wonder what Johnny Public made of it. I am reminded of Nick Hornby’s infamous review of Kid A when he said you have to be a teenager to have the time to invest in one’s favourite pop grop and once you are an adult you don’t have the time or inclination to invest in getting to grips with ‘challenging’ music. I would guess that this is not true of most of the people on this site. It seems to me, we are of a certain age, with kids grown up and have made the decision to spend our time resource exactly on that, on enjoying and getting into music. Am I wrong?
The video’s pretty bonkers too.
David Bowie – Blackstar (Video) – Bing video
TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE
More realised than the all Bowie played b side of the ‘Sue in a Season of Crime’ single released in late 2014 with a more polished vocal, a punchy rhythm section and piano that recalls Garson/Alladin Sane. Bowie’s diction on the vocal reminds me a bit of Bryan Ferry. Fairly wild sounds but the production keeps it boundaried and makes the song curiously danceable. Bowie’s vocals are all over the place, in a good way. Quite unlike any music Bowie has previously released. In fact a bit unlike anything from anyone really unless any of you free jazz nuts out there can tell me different. Not sure what he is getting at in the vocals. I like this. Some grunting and whooping to finish.
The second single out in December 2015. Released with fanfare about a coming Jukebox musical/theatrical piece that Bowie was involved in. Another disturbing video. Bowie with mummy bandaged masked face and button eyes writing about on a bed, putting himself into a closet. The song is slow, stately, sad and pretty catchy with a bravura desperate vocal from Bowie. The playing is amazing with drummer firing off effortless understated drum rolls and woozy sax. It feels a bit like three quarter time motoric. The saxophone is the defining instrument on this album and the solo builds nicely from an understated start. Long coda to end. The last single released in his lifetime and a fitting send off.
David Bowie – Lazarus (Rare Widescreen version) – Bing video
SUE IN A SEASON OF CRIME
More funky stripped down version than the jazz big band version that came out in 2014 on the ‘Nothing has changed’ compilation and was released as a single then. It even got in the charts I believe at some lowly number. Retains the atonal keening vocal. Ominous lyrics. Great drumming. Once again the rhythm section excels. ich works well. Builds up quite a drum and bass and goes fairly crazy towards the end. I am loving the skronky top line with the killer dance band underneath.
Video for the (edited) single version
youtube david bowie sue in the season of crime – Bing video
GIRL LOVES ME
A clunky Fame/falling down the stairs, clod footed funk Nadsat style cut up lyrics. If my memory serves me corrrectly BBC 6 Music Radio broadcast the entire album the day of release and I must have listened to it on catch up a few times that weekend because the Monday when his death was announced on the early monring news I had a day off and stunned by the news I took myself off to a local nature spot. The tune and lyric in my head was this “Where the fuck did Monday go?” summed up my mood completely and I thought “The great artist. He’s even written his own obituary song” Of course this is not the case but anyway he summed up my feelings and confusion and state of mind that Monday.
Another downbeat sad ballad. Along with ‘Where Are We Now?’ I would say this is the high point of his post Lets Dance work and one of the best songs he ever did. Possibly references the trip he took to the UK with his family knowing that he was dying. Lovely sax break that recalls ‘Tiny Girls’ on Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot’. Affecting vocal performance. This seems to address his predicament. Not in an angry confrontative way but in a reflective artistic wistful way. Builds up to a bit of a doomy apocalyptic climax before segueing into…
I CANT GIVE ANYTHING AWAY
Features harmonica and seems to reference the Low tune ‘A New Career in a New Town’ stylistic borrowing (or cheap steal rip off) of ‘Groovin with Mr Bloe’ harmonica. Yearning saxophone lines. Nicely sad, nicely maudlin. Has that kind of jazz saxophone fade out. Catchy, a superior pop song. Midway between the ballads and the more upbeat numbers. The last few tunes actually remind me of Kraftwerk with western European melodies pop over precise beats. Guitar noodle joins the sax over heartbeat dancebeat drums. Drum sound between natural and synthetic. A bit of a Mini Opera. Almost Day in the Life chord to end.
A very satisfying 40 minutes, three out there avant garde or jazzy junes, 3 reflective ballads and one interbetweener avant funk song. I would be happy to listen to this much more. There seems to be much more depth and nuance to this than anything he released in the preceding twenty or thirty years. The title track I find a bit of a rich dessert that I have to be in the mood for but the rest I love, both the ballads and the skronathons.
I’m not sure the album sequencing which puts the long challenging title track first and leaves the more conventional songs to the end, works that well and I have experimented whilst reviewing to listen to it on shuffle and other permutations such as a Low/Heroes style more conventional first side and the wild stuff to end, or starting and ending with ballads bookending the wilder stuff and title track. I’m still experimenting with this with pleasing results.
I imagine quite a few know this album and hopefully have strong opinions that will generate lots of comments and debate about this album. I have enjoyed writing these reviews finding it quite therapeutic however I must admit I have been a bit disappointed with the paltry 10 or so comments the last couple of albums have received and I’m hoping this is a reflection of interest in those albums rather than my reviewing style.
I’m having December off, possibly giving Tin Machine and the Toy albums a listen, but will start listening to a new ‘12 albums in 12 months’ artist in January so expect my first review at the beginning of February. I’m pretty sure who I am doing. In fact, I have enough artists lined up for the next decade or so.