69 years old of age, 25 albums recorded and 54 years in the music business; at the heart of David Bowie’s successful journey is wise decision-making. He has originated genres for generations and left those scenes when they’ve become stale and absurd. He has conjured up legendary characters that express his imagination and view of the universe, better than a narcissistic true-self ever could. For the most part, he’s stayed with New York producer Tony Visconti – only 9 in Bowie’s catalog are without him – knowing that a level of consistency is needed even in a career of shape-shifting creative processes.
Blackstar is another record that benefits from gifted judgement. Visconti is back on board but it’s the teaming up with saxophonist Donny McCaslin and drummer Mark Guiliana that is truly significant, as they explore and update sophisticated styles to the present day; Bowie discovered the duo in a bar in his recording city of New York. Together the trio form an intelligent, praiseworthy canvas of experimental jazz/krautrock/prog fusion that’s both challenging and enjoyable immediately on first inspection.
Fittingly for a visionary that’s fabricated alter egos, Bowie employs McCaslin’s personality-filled saxophone. Just from its tone, it reflects anxiety, pogo stick jumping excitement, nauseous vertigo, confusion and despair. If McCaslin sets the mood, Mark Guiliana’s drumming sets the genre with its speed, volume and attention-seeking bravura. At its most free jazz (“Blackstar“), it is similar to last year’s Dipytch by The Classical.
When it’s focused, it can resemble the beat of Hip Hop music – Bowie’s first brush with that spitting beatbox sound on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” was inspired by Kendrick Lamar, the alternative rock of Radiohead’s In Rainbows (“Sue Or In A Season of Crime“), dub (“Lazarus”) and techno-rock (“Tis A Pity She Was A Whore“). The result is seven songs that, although contain the same leading instruments, are satisfyingly distinguishable.
Bowie’s story has always been bookmarked in chapter tabs: from the Ziggy Stardust stage to the Berlin Era to the plastic soul detour. Following on from 2013’s The Next Day, Bowie continues in a period of career self-reflection – commenting on his iconoclastic history, promiscuity and battle with health in “I Can’t Give Everything Away” – a track that sounds both like The Lost Highway’s “I’m Deranged” and the ambiance in the soundtrack to Twin Peaks. To show his throwback, he even recycles the harmonica from “A Career In A New Town” from the equally experimental seventies LP Low on the final track, like how he re-used the album cover in his last LP.
Knowing the inventor’s habits, his words were still going to be third person disguised and consisting of riddles. “Girl Loves Me” is one of his most arcane yet, considering that listeners require linguistic knowledge of Polari (argot used by British homosexuals in the 1960’s) and Nadsat (a Russian-English language fusion uttered by Alex’s gang in A Clockwork Orange). Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing way to write a song, that is rewarding upon further research. The title track of Blackstar continues his affiliation with space and galactic atmospheres – especially evident by the Johan Renck directed video – and also utilizes religious metaphors and a knowledge of mythology to express a recent feeling of self-realization.
Although this is one of Bowie’s most profane records, “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is one of two tracks along with “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)” that purposely reference a John Ford play about hypocrisy. While the latter retells the John Word tragedy from the point of view of its most hypocritical character Giovanni, the former mixes it with the double standard mind of brothel-visiting soldiers in World War I . As Bowie has recently dabbled in theatre opening his own broadway show, it’s unsurprising that he would study that art form and that he would keep the distinctive theatrical voice that has never escaped his clutches.
Through his music choices and lyrical elitism, you get the feeling that David Bowie wants his allegiance to be firmly in the erudite high brow demographic – as opposed to a genre-specific rock market in the 1970’s and pop culture in the 1980’s – but who could argue, when the decisions he has made so far have been right on the mark. David Bowie’s 25th studio album Blackstar is out now via ISO Records/Columbia Records, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Matt Hobbs