David Bowie – Blackstar

8 01 2016

blackstarNew Bowie albums have always been a big deal and a major event for me. And it’s even more so now, as each release arrives I can’t help but wonder if I’m listening to the last Bowie studio album. The live shows look like they are over, and the time will come when the studio albums stop too, so excuse me for savouring each release.

Anyway, sorry about that – enough of the morbid thoughts. Don’t worry – I’m not going to start off by saying that its the best Bowie album since Scary Monsters, as this is only day one of my listening to the full album (courtesy of the new way of hearing albums on release date – the post midnight Apple Music stream until my CD arrives in the post). It’s a brave new world.

The album opens with the seconds short of 10 minutes title track. Driven by Bjork-like percussion and jittery synths and saxes, contrary to early rumours and the Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) single, this ain’t no jazz album. It’s a virtually rock free zone – the guitars are mostly heavily processed and the music is very electronic and playfully experimental.

I love the middle section of the track Blackstar – its pure old-school Bowie tied in with intriguing lyrics.

“You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the great I am (I’m a blackstar)”

Tis a Pity She Was a Whore has developed from the 2014 digital release (which had the feel of a demo if I’m honest). There is a real consistency in the sound of Blackstar, which continues with Tis a Pity…, a song littered with frantic sax (as is most of the album) and reminding me a little of Jump They Say.

Lazarus, oh my sweet Lazarus. I was excited about this album when I heard the evolving strangeness of the title track, but Lazarus took it all up a notch and is by far my favourite track on the album. I’ve played this song so many times since it was released digitally in late 2015.

The guitars on this track are just stunning, and I think Lazarus is shaping up to be one of my favourite Bowie songs since the late 70s. I love the arrangement especially the build up to the songs climax, as the guitars and drums reach their crescendo and then it quickly slips back to the nagging pace of the beginning, whilst adding some great bass and guitar interplay. Lazarus also sees Bowie delivering one of his sassiest vocals in many a year.

Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) appears on Blackstar shorn of it’s jazz trappings and in much shorter, but markedly heavier form. There is a feel of the Outside album at times, especially on this track.

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Girl Loves Me is a weird little number. With vocal tics and incomprehensible lyrics, Girl Loves Me is Bowie at his most off-kilter, and sets up the final tracks, two songs that also happen to be the most accessible songs on the album.

Dollar Days is a great Bowie ballad. At times on The Next Day, some of the nods to the past felt a little like pastiche at times, but Dollar Days does not feel forced, even though it feeds on nostalgia.

Blackstar really feels like an album recorded with a band playing off a well oiled-ensembles strengths and Bowie seems to react to this (listen to the enthused yelps on Tis a Pity She Was a Whore).

I Can’t Give Everything Away opens with a musical nod to Low‘s A New Career In A New Town, and contains the return of the heart-wrenching Bowie vibrato in the chorus.

A simple, understated track that rises and drops, ending with some Fripp like guitar buried in the mix towards the end of a song that seems to be telling his audience to back-off a little – whilst asking for some personal privacy.

“Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent”

The album has much more consistency than The Next Day. On the first full play of Blackstar, I came to the end and realised I had been waiting to hear the inevitable album filler, but there wasn’t one. Bowie and his musicians do not waste a single note and no track overstays its welcome.

For an artist with such an influential catalogue of songs and albums behind him, to be releasing music this satisfying so far down the line is remarkable.

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David Bowie – The Next Day

1 03 2013

Here are my initial thoughts on the forthcoming David Bowie album, The Next Day. I should preface by saying that I’ve not got the CD yet, the review is from listening to the iTunes pre-release stream, so I won’t comment too much on the production, as the stream seems quite low quality and compressed. But it’s enough to give an initial impression (kind of like listening to an album on low bitrate FM radio back in the distant past).

The Next Day is a strong opening track, with clipped-guitars that are reminiscent of the Lodger era, and lyrically a real call to arms. The opening track is the first of several tracks on this album where Bowie rolls back the years and lets his vocals roar like they used to in the late 70’s.

Dirty Boys heralds the return of the sax! A real oddity, and all the better for it to my ears. He even manages to sneak in a guitar riff reminiscent of China Girl at one point towards the end of the chorus.

The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is quite simply a great Bowie single – driven by a powerful, driving bass-line, and topped off with 70s handclaps aplenty. Sounding like the bastard child of Absolute Beginners (who has shagged Time Will Crawl senseless). What a pretty baby. One of the songs on the album that gets better the more you play it. So go on, play it again.

Love is Lost is one of the more minimal tracks on The Next Day. Sparse drums and cheap sounding synths throb in a track that almost has a demo feel to it. Imagine the empty spaces of Sign O The Times by Prince for an idea of how this song sounds. I love the way that the guitars are often dirty and twisted on the album, and this track is no exception. The backing vocals are also classic Bowie.

“Oh what have you done?”

Where Are We Now? is the track that announced the return of DB. The (previously) most unBowie-like looking back and nostalgia of Where Are We Now? fits really well in the context of this album, which often references Bowie’s musical past . Which is not a criticism by the way, they are his tools, why shouldn’t he use them?

The end of the song is one of the most powerful moments in Bowie’s vast catalogue, and it’s reassuring to hear our rock stars growing old, some gracefully, some disgracefully. Just like us.

“As long as there’s me
As long as there’s you”

Valentines Day is the one track that I was slightly disappointed with on these first, early plays. Musically it harks back just a little too much and is close to becoming a Bowie parody at times, with it’s “sha la la’s”. The excellent lead guitar work towards the end and it’s subject matter (a high school shooting) does give it a bit more weight on repeated plays, and it’s starting to grow on me.

I’d Rather Be High also suffers from being slightly too retro – sounding like a mash-up of The Beatles and The Stone Roses at times. But in context, two potential disappointments out of 14 songs is not bad going.

Boss of Me has a strong chorus and more Bowie sax. If You Can See Me is gloriously chaotic, with an odd time signature, frantic drums and sped up backing vocals.

Every Bowie album has to have a space song, right? And normally they are one of the album’s highlights, so why spoil a perfectly good tradition. Dancing out in Space is the space song from The Next Day, and this clever pop song is driven by a Lust for Life type rhyhmn section, bubbling synths and a nostalgic Bowie backing vocal. This song would make a good third single from the album.

How Does the Grass Grow? is one of my early album favourites. It’s a kitchen sink of a song, with some West Side Story doo-wap thrown in, and sounding like it would easily fit into a remake of Lodger (one of my favourite Bowie albums). Tony Visconti is surely Bowie’s greatest producer – the drums and guitar mix are perfect on this track. The return of Earl Slick and the addition of David Torn on guitar are inspired moves too. Slick provides the link to Bowie’s past and Torn adds the spacey soundscapes.

Starting off with an almost heavy metal riff, (You Will) Set the World on Fire has a chorus that stays with you long after the song has ended. The most straight-forward rocker on the album, it makes a change from the songs either side of it, and is another possible contender for third single.

You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is the album’s second big-ballad. A welcome return of acoustic guitar high in the mix, the drums (especially in the song’s outro) are very Five Years. The mid-70’s Young American referencing arrangement works well on this song and Bowie gets the nostalgia quotient just right here.

If Bowie ever tours, you just know he would segue this with the aforementioned Ziggy Stardust classic. It’s written in the stars.

The Next Day ends on the album’s third big ballad. Mr Bowie, you are spoiling us. Heat has a hint of the Outside album running throughout, and also boasts the albums finest vocal performance.

Loosely strummed acoustic guitars build in intensity alongside a very synthetic, sci-fi backing.

“And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am”

It’s a great album closer.

I’m sure in this X-Factor era of pop music, when quality in the mainstream is often hard to seek out, the press will be all over this album, rating it as a glorious comeback.

To me, it is a very good comeback. But is it one of Bowies greatest albums? No, but I do think it’s the best Bowie album since Outside, and contains at least four songs (The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Where Are We Now?, How Does the Grass Grow? and Heat) that would not sound out of place on a Best of Bowie compilation.

And I’m happy with that. Welcome back David Bowie.

The Next Day – Amazon UK








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