In 2013, David Bowie committed rock sacrilege and re-purposed the album art of his classic 1977 album “Heroes” for his “comeback” album The Next Day. However you chose to read the purposefully clumsy and ugly cover-up, it suggested a revisit of the late 70s, Bowie’s fruitful Berlin period. The Next Day was not, however, the comeback we had hoped for. It was a competent but generic rock album that failed to make much of an impression.
Blackstar is the return to form for Bowie that its disappointing predecessor promised, and Bowie seems to know it too. The album, which was released on the singer’s 69th birthday, closes with the silky, pulsating “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” Over swells of synthesizer and tumbling drums, a harmonica bursts through the mix in the song’s first bars and, whether sampled or replayed, its wistful melody is a direct quotation from "A New Career in a New Town," from Bowie’s groundbreaking 1977 album Low.
There are many comparisons that can be made between Blackstar and Bowie’s enormous back catalogue, most notably 1976’s winding, jazz- and funk-influenced Station to Station, but the fact is that Blackstar is not far from where contemporary music currently stands. While it must be acknowledged that Bowie is no longer a trendsetter (and hasn’t been for nearly four decades), it’s fascinating to hear modern trends in indie rock and electronica – last year’s gorgeous debut record from Floating Points, or Destroyer’s chamber jazz digressions come to mind – filtered through Bowie’s distinctive lens.
Across this collection of seven tracks, Bowie and longtime producer Tony Visconti stretch out luxuriously, unfettered by commercial expectations and leaving behind the rigid and formulaic nature that has marred the singer's more recent work. The opening title track congeals into menacing mutant funk coloured with a restless saxophone. Moving from a brief orchestral section with harps and strings, “Blackstar” explores blue-eyed soul and verges almost on musical theatre as Bowie delivers the ambitious lyrics that, like the fascinating sprawl of the music, seem to transcend space and time.
There is a nervy tension running through the entire record in the compositions as well as Bowie’s performance. “Lazarus,” possibly the finest track on the album, lays down a wonderfully lurching beat with the help of a Morse Code-like guitar line and muscular bass and creates palpable tension between splatters of distorted guitar and a levitating horn section. Two of the album’s tracks, “’Tis is a Pity She Was a Whore,” and “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” were previously released to promote Bowie’s recent best-of collection Nothing Has Changed and appear here in slightly different versions, their charging rock rhythms and squealing horn and guitar textures slotting perfectly in among the paranoiac fantasias of the rest of the album.
Bowie is in fine vocal form here. Though Blackstar is largely devoid of the soaring choruses of Bowie’s most popular songs, there is a fluidity and versatility to his vocal performance, as well as a remarkable subtlety. The resolute and aggressive “Girl Loves Me,” finds Bowie moving effortlessly between an almost-yodel that echoes into the song’s yawning gaps, and a high, breathy voice. The following track, the unbelievably good “Dollar Days,” with Bowie’s clipped phrasing riding atop a piece of lush and exploratory jazz-pop, recalls the great Nina Simone, one of Bowie’s idols, but never sounds like an imitation or a forced homage.
At an age when other artists of his stature are either releasing pointless duets albums or doggedly re-recording the songs that made their name, David Bowie is refusing to lie down. This record is neither an attempt to recapture the height of Bowie’s pop fame, nor is it a re-tread of his artistic glory days. Blackstar is a complete artistic statement, and what the record sometimes lacks in immediacy it makes up in passion, a passion that has clearly not diminished over Bowie’s long and varied career.