Blackstar (★) would be a big deal anyway - even if the legendary David Bowie hadn't died
It’s a very strange experience to be reviewing the latest work by an artist who has just died. Even more so when that artist is David Bowie.
The release of Blackstar (rendered as ★) would be a big deal anyway; it’s a new Bowie album, and that of itself makes it a hugely significant event in pop culture. But then news, just this morning, that the legendary musician has died added several extra layers of import.
I suppose the best thing, really, would be to pretend that this genuinely shocking and seismic news hadn’t broken, and review ★ on its own merits. That’s not an easy thing to do, though, because so much of the album deals with death, directly or indirectly.
Also, Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti has revealed that the record was made as a “parting gift” for fans. Bowie had been battling cancer for 18 months; thus they knew, in Visconti’s words, that “this was the way it would be”.
So, a strange place to be. Then again, a David Bowie album is a strange place to be anyway. That’s one of the (many, many) reasons why, for my money, he was the greatest genius in the history of popular music: the way he somehow made strangeness normal, made it personal, cool, sexy, fascinating.
And ★ is as strange a record as any Bowie made – which, by extension, means it’s up there with the very best. How do I describe this collection of seven songs, performed with the New York-based jazz musician Donny McCaslin and his band?
Like much of Bowie’s unparalleled output, that’s difficult. If ever Elvis Costello’s famous description of writing about music being like “dancing to architecture” needed proof, you’ll find it in this man and this record.
The guitar stylings and pleasant melodies of The Next Day (another fine record) are gone; in their place we find discordant jazz, often-wailed vocals, bizarre and oblique lyrics, electronic blips and bleeps, and – best of all for me – propulsive, crunching, almost brutal percussion.
Is it experimental, is it avant-garde? Yep. It’s also brilliant. More instantly catchy than you’d suspect, it also grows on you with each listen. Something new is revealed every time, some little finessed touch that you’d missed the last time round.
Parts of ★ remind me of post-rock era Radiohead, parts of it Bowie’s own 1997 album Earthling. Other parts are literally uncategorisable.
My favourite songs – at the moment, this might change – are the 10-minute opener Blackstar (a sort of symphony in three parts, beginning and ending with an unsettling, Bible-type story of execution), the thumping murder ballad Sue, Or in a Season of Crime (one of a handful driven by guitars), and especially, Girl Loves Me, another fast song in an album of sometimes sublime slowness.
The lyrics for Girl Loves Me are mostly cobbled together from Nadsat, the futuristic slang invented by Anthony Burgess for his novel A Clockwork Orange. (And that reference to “sitting in the chestnut tree” is a nod to the café in George Orwell’s 1984, I reckon.)
It’s appropriate that Bowie should, well, appropriate Burgess on ★, because the latter man is possibly the closest approximation of a Bowie-esque figure. Like Bowie, Burgess was multi-talented and incandescently gifted; he was artistically versatile, courageous and endlessly inventive.
They were both chameleons, ever-open to change, unafraid to fail, usually succeeding. They were, basically, godlike geniuses.
From that jaw-dropping opening salvo of Space Oddity – made when just a baby of 22 – through a further 25 albums, many of them all-time classics, right on to ★, Bowie’s was a life and career so extraordinary, he often seemed to have beamed down from a different planet.
The manner of his leaving befitted all of that. (Who else, in fairness, would or could have made their own mortality into such a cool, stylish artistic statement?) ★ is an album for the ages, from a man for all time.