David Bowie's final album: Blackstar: Bowie shines bright at 69
Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30
Yesterday marked David Bowie's 69th birthday - and the release of his 25th album. January 8 has been a good one for his numerous admirers in recent years. First, in 2013, he drops his first single in almost a decade - and entirely without warning. The elegiac 'Where Are We Now' would be a lovely taster for the fine The Next Day that was released a couple of months later.
Now, three years on, Blackstar is here, and while its arrival has been known since the end of October, it is generating considerable excitement. And rightly so - this is an album that is bound to enjoy an elevated place in the Bowie canon. Put simply, it's among the most innovative and daring albums of one of the most fantastically varied careers in pop history.
Clocking in at just seven tracks, but with a 41-minute run-time, Blackstar is the sound of a man, now in his 70th year, who's keen to try something new and not merely retread old ground. There have been so many directions in Bowie's music over the years, but none that have plunged down the rabbit hole of free jazz as enthusiastically as this.
We got an inkling of the road he was taking on the single 'Sue (Or in the Season of Crime)', a new song which was cobbled onto his career-spanning retrospective Nothing Has Changed, released just over a year ago. Re-recorded versions of both it and its b-side 'Tis A Pity She's A Whore' appear on Blackstar.
The roots of the album can be traced to January 2014, when Bowie - at the urging of his friend, the band leader Maria Schneider - dropped into 55 Bar, a venerable jazz joint in Manhattan, to watch a quartet led by the saxophonist Donny McCaslin. He left without saying a word but made contact with McCaslin shortly after. The quartet worked on 'Sue' and '...Whore' and must have assumed their David Bowie collaboration was at an end.
Later that year, Bowie and his long-term producer Tony Visconti did tentative work on what would become Blackstar, but it wouldn't be until this time last year that the singer called again on McCaslin and friends and started working in earnest on such gloriously experimental fare as the 10-minute title track and 'Lazarus', which was specifically penned for the Bowie musical of the same name that's running in New York until January 20.
It's a sign of the late flush of creativity Bowie is experiencing now that the stage play - which he co-wrote with Dubliner Enda Walsh - has been attracting rave reviews. Much like The Next Day, Lazarus is a work that harks back to Bowie's own past: it's a re-imagining of the Walter Tevis sci-fi novel The Man Who Fell to Earth which, of course, starred Bowie in the role of the alien in Nicolas Roeg's acclaimed 1976 film.
While elements of Blackstar will remind many aficionados of his more outré 1970s and early 80s work, it feels more like an album that looks forward than back. I can't have been the only one who thought that The Next Day's fixation with the past might have been the mark of an artist who was going to finally retire from recording, just as he has seemingly done with playing live.
But what Blackstar shows time and again is that this is a man whose creativity has been fired up in a spectacular way. Impressive as its predecessor was, this is an album whose contours, textures and arrangements will reward even more dedicated listening. Intriguingly, Bowie nut James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem plays on two of the songs.
Visconti gave some inkling about what Bowie wanted to achieve when he told Rolling Stone that during recording sessions at New York's Magic Shop Studios they were listening to "a lot of Kendrick Lamar", the LA rapper behind one of last year's great albums, To Pimp A Butterfly, and there was a tacit objective to make a leftfield album. "The aim," Visconti said, "was to avoid rock 'n' roll." And that, they've certainly done.
It would be a huge surprise if Bowie chose to take the album on the road: he hasn't toured since 2004 when health problems made him reassess everything. In fact, the last time he played live was in 2006 at a New York charity gig when he and Alicia Keys performed 'Changes'.
He's also refused to embark on the usual promotional racket where over-exposure can strip the magic out of a new album, book, film, you-name-it. So keen does he appear to not want to play the game, that his own image does not appear on Blackstar's cover. It's the first Bowie album not to feature the man himself on the artwork - a future table quiz question, surely.
If the prospect of a new Bowie album isn't enough to excite fans, there's always the now annual David Bowie Festival which takes place in Dublin's Grand Social venue tonight and tomorrow. The star attraction is Dubliner Gerry Leonard, who has played guitar with Bowie since the early 2000s, and was a key musician on The Next Day (but wasn't involved this time).
Tonight Leonard will join the excellent tribute act Rebel Rebel for their show (many of us will have fond memories of Leonard playing the famous 'Rebel Rebel' riff at the then Point in 2003) and tomorrow night he will play a solo set under the Spooky Ghost moniker and take part in a questions and answers session about what it's like to work with Bowie.
* Last week, in my appreciation of Phil Lynott on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his death, I speculated that 'The Boys Are Back in Town' was written about the Manchester Phil knew as a boy. Debate has long raged about which side of the Irish Sea inspired the rousing anthem.
But Frank Murray - Thin Lizzy's famed tour manager (who went on to manage The Pogues) - mailed me to say that the song was most definitely about Dublin's fair city. I'm not arguing with someone from Lynott's inner sanctum!