New 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.
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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