What does it sound like?:
A chameleon changes its appearance to blend in with its background. On Blackstar, David Bowie does the exact opposite, changing those around to suit him. As long ago as 2003, he was interviewed by Paul Du Noyer in The Word. He said that his biggest mistakes were when he tried to please an audience. “My work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it.” Blackstar is the sound of the greatest pop star that has ever lived doing exactly as his fragile heart desires.
Blackstar is as full of songs as Hunky Dory, as big a step-change as Young Americans, as enigmatic as Stationtostation and as experimental as Low. Let me reiterate. Blackstar can be discussed in the same breath as Hunky Dory, Young Americans, Stationtostation and Low. More importantly, Blackstar is entirely of itself, inhabiting its own world beyond compare to anything else.
The band are all very experienced, if relatively obscure, jazz musicians. They play ‘rock’ music deliciously with an extraordinary touch. It could well be the best band Bowie has put together. The dynamic Mark Guiliana on drums shines but the real star is Donny McCaslin on saxophone. He is astonishing, providing most of the sparks to set alight Bowie’s creativity. I suspect Blackstar will probably define his career.
However, these seven tracks aren’t just ‘rock’, they are David Bowie Rock, full of weird twists and turns, wilfully obscure lyrics and glorious melodies. The production is warm and expansive. Bowie’s vocals are beautiful, the best I’ve heard since “Heroes”. He sounds calm and authoritative, a man in control. The lyrics are full of darkness, regret and anger but you can hear the twinkle in his eye. Bowie is loving every second of this album. So much so that he doesn’t allow another singer a look-in, providing all of the backing vocals himself.
The title track is ten minutes of intrigue and theatre. In the hands of this wonderful band, the souped up ‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore is colossal, seething with disgust. Lazarus rides on a dreamy bass groove driven by a three note sax hook. Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) is actually jazzed down compared to the previous release with a tense bass line and malevolent electronic noise. Girl Loves Me blends bewildered lyrics, a hypnotic rhythm and a tender tune. The bravado in Dollar Days is undermined by a delicately strummed acoustic and an especially vulnerable sax. The closing track, I Can’t Give Everything Away, with its echo of A New Career In A New Town, is nostalgic and wistful, ending on a hopeful tone in the only guitar solo on the whole album. All seven tracks are very different yet hang together perfectly to create an immersing album experience from beginning to end.
Blackstar isn’t personally revealing as, say, Young Americans and Low are, but it does expose David Bowie being true to himself. Most ageing rock stars retreat to a safe place as time goes by (think Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan). Bowie pushes himself to the edge, producing an album crackling with life, full of his trademark strangeness and his gift for a great pop tune. In the twilight of his career, Blackstar is the quintessential Bowie album, back to his imperious best.
What does it all *mean*?
Happy birthday, David. You’ve just released one of your best albums.
Goes well with…
Anything. I’ve put it on three iPods so I can listen to it everywhere. I don’t plan to listen to anything else for the rest of the year.
Might suit people who like…
Anyone who has liked any David Bowie of any kind will enjoy this.