David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)

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Blackstar is David Bowie’s new album, and one thing it is not is vintage Bowie. That is deliberate and a good thing, for whilst Bowie remains one of our key musicians, the last releases began to sound just a tad retrospective. Not this one.

Here, David Bowie introduces us to yet another side of this intriguing musician. The opening title track has Bowie’s trademarks of singing repeated vocal lines over a strong, rhythmic background of drums, electronic keys and bass. It is mesmerizing and Bowie’s words are clear and expressed with emotion, which makes it easy to forgive the lack of strength in the vocals. A sax solo breaks the first half piece into two parts, neatly transcending back to the repetitive lines, creating a familiar structure to the piece before it transforms into something else — a slow, soft intersection where Bowie tells the story of Blackstar’s death and another brave man taking his place.

As an opener, the track is great and sets the high quality of tone for the album. A delicious flute solo takes the listener back to the original riffs and vocal lines. Clever structure makes this just under 10 minute piece completely engaging.

“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is very different — starting with upbeat, smooth jazzy rhythms over which a sax contributes a contrasting beat. The vocals are good but the music is even better, making this a classy number with some intricate saxophone work and percussion support. A sax solo goes almost off the register whilst the drums and guitar support, creating a driving middle section before the vocals come back to relate the rest of the story. Donny McCaslin’s sax work on this track is superb, and takes off towards overdrive as David Bowie whoops with delight in the background.

“Lazarus” is more of a typical rock number, with good lyrics and vocals clearly enunciated to tell the story; his fellow musicians back it all up with strong guitar work and great drumming. Again, great sax work, along with a lovely guitar section. “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” is a terrific number, with great story telling and structured over a relentless driving rhythm. The only slight negative is that even when Bowie sings about things being fine and bringing his love home, he sounds like it is the end of the earth — but then the story does not end well.

“Girl Loves Me” is very different, starting with starkly open vocals from Bowie. The song then builds over the rhythm set by the band. It maintains a lovely, swung rhythm right the way through, so even though it is not “jazz” in style it has that swing reference which seems to prevail right through this album. “Dollar Days” is gentler (more “poppy,” if you like) and perhaps more typically Bowie-esque. It has a gorgeous light sax solo and some cool vocals over the rolling music. “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the closing track, is different again with its rock story-telling lines over deep rhythms. It is a good track to close the album, as it contains a little bit of everything that has gone before.

David Bowie’s Blackstar — due today (Jan. 11, 2016) via RCA/Columbia — surprises and delights in equal measures. The tracks individually are not so important as the overall feel of the album. Anything Bowie does is almost guaranteed success, as can be seen by the domination of the music charts for almost a year with his 24th studio album The Next Day in 2013, even with little or no promotion by Bowie himself. There are elements of his 2002’s Heathen here, but similarities are relatively few and Blackstar stands alone in its stance and feel.

With this album, there is a sense that Bowie has tapped into something he has often referenced but never really explored — his jazz side. It is widely known that Bowie likes jazz and Stan Kenton, Gil Evans and other jazz musicians were favorites. Here, he takes jazz references and makes them distinctly, unequivocally Bowie. To enhance this choice of reference, he uses not stolid background sidemen but jazz musicians who can lift, add to and elevate the music so much. Donny McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder, Mark Guiliana on drums and Jason Linder on keys are never going to stay in the background but rather add deep, sensual, harsh, jazz orientated intuitions to the music which lifts it and gives it a very different appeal compared to Bowie’s previous albums, even the delectable Heathen.

The musicians provide counter melodies, rasping undertones which add texture and life to many of the tracks. The instruments are used to add emphasis, nuances and details to the stories he tells in the songs and he gives them more than enough space to do so, which only enhances the listening experience. Sometimes, the story is taken up and told by the music, which is so good for the listener.

David Bowie has not got a powerful voice or a wide range, but his voice is an instrument and he knows just how to use what he has to maximum effect. On Blackstar, he works with and over strong musicians and the result is a delight to listen to. He could, after all, put out a greatest hits or a series of rocky, vocal narrative numbers and it would still be a hit. But instead Bowie has shown he can engage with a totally different side of music — being distinctly Bowie and one step ahead of the field and yet bringing in the jazz references, mingling jazz riffs alongside rock beats. It’s clever and deftly done.

In keeping, Blackstar is of course carefully crafted but you also get the sense that some of the tracks were recorded in a single take — as there are little quirks, instrumental trips and even tiny vocal slip ups which have not been corrected maybe because they add to the rawness of some of the sections. For Bowie, this is brave and somehow, even after decades in the business, he manages to tread new ground for others to follow. That adds a sense of fun to this album, and also a touch of almost humility: David Bowie has made a living from imagery, characters and heavily produced music which appeals to a very wide range of listeners but here he has gone with his heart, gone over to the jazz side of music, and brought it into mainstream using wonderful players.

There are still rocky numbers on Blackstar, and the music is very much David Bowie and could be no-one else, but he is also still adding new things, showing us there is more in the box. It is the music which will sell this album to new listeners. There is a sense of Bowie now doing what is really his thing — the true music of his maturity — and there is no a sense of buying into an image. The music is the selling point. It is as if Bowie now has the freedom to let the music to possess him. He allows the music to develop, encouraging extreme stretching out, and Blackstar is more about the music than whims, trends or characters.

I have always liked Bowie’s music but never fully engaged with him as an artist, because I felt I was being sold more an image than the music. I do not feel this with Blackstar, though I am still willing to bet it will sell in the millions. It is different, it is interesting and it is very good.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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