So, less than two years since ‘The Next Day’ landed as the best Bowie album since 1980 and exactly two years since ‘Where Are We Now’ woke the world up from its Bowie-less slumber, the man’s back, on his 69th birthday, with another new album, and this time it stands up against his very best work. A bold claim, maybe, but let’s consider it….
Lead and title track ‘Blackstar’ landed a few weeks back and simply blew me away. A ten-minute epic, effectively two songs knitted into a whole one, it’s mood, instrumentation (drum and bass beats, subculture jazz, near soulful middle section), lyrics, structure and well everything (including the super creepy video) screamed out superior modern alternative pop/rock. The lyrics may be undecipherable, possibly autobiographical, possibly referencing the panic and fear in the world in these times of ISIS seeded terror, but they work a whole with the at times barely structured music that still manages to work as a complete whole. The middle section is as vocally complete as anything Bowie’s ever sung. The below the surface hook ‘I’m a Blackstar’ I’m a Blackstar’ is as triumphant as it is unsettling. This is superior Bowie, it could have sat supremely atop the ‘Diamond Dogs’ album, quite a compliment. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of listening to it.
It’s hard to catch your breath after such an opening. Track two, ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ was underwhelming in it’s demo form as the reverse of late 2013’s genre defying single ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’, here though it’s transformed, full and a different beast. The title comes from a John Ford play and returns to the subject of the terrors of war (in this case WW1), a subject so fruitfully covered by Bowie on ‘The Next Day’. It’s features another great, at times jaw dropping Bowie vocal, especially on the lines ‘man, she punched me like a dude’.
‘Lazarus’ is from the play that Bowie has collaborated in the production of. It’s a vastly superior piece of alt. rock with jarring guitars, a steady beat, and mournful sax. The play continues the story of Thomas Newton, whom Bowie played on film back in the 70’s, an alien stranded on earth whilst searching for water for his home world. The lyrics also touch on the biblical character Lazarus who lives after dying. A couple of days ago this song also was released with an accompanying creepy video. The overall feeling so far is of music of intense power, as good as ‘The Next Day’ was it didn’t have this presence, this confidence.
Four tracks and over half way in and a radical reworking of ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime’ blasts in. Heavier than the original orchestral jazz recording, the song is perhaps even more unnerving than the original. The story of a relationship flailing amidst illness and infidelity, spiralling into murder. The disjointed drum and bass beats and sombre but pacey music lend an air of panic. This was always a fantastic song, I loved the original, and though quite different this is up there as at least an equal of the original. So far so stunning.
‘Girl Loves Me’ sounds by title like it’s some mid 80’s Bowie B-side. It is anything but. Phrased in Clockwork Orange viddy speech and oddball London slang, the song could be about an empowered woman or a man’s confidence and ego gone mad bolstered by an empowered woman. It’s a bit obscure, and though it may not touch the heights of the opening four tracks it’s still way more than album filler and again creaks under the weight its own class.
‘Dollar Days’ is more softly melodic than all that’s preceded it. Lyrically it seems to be dealing with tough subject matter, maybe the migrant crisis that grips Europe at the moment? There’s a feeling of sacrifice, hardship and regret. Some great sax and percussion work underpin the song, and the urgency present in every song so far on this album remains just a strong here. The slightly understated vocal tends to add to an overall feel and urgency mixed with despair tinged with tiredness and regret.
The song then segues into ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’. Another lilting melodic song, heralded by a Berlin era sounding harmonica, soft synths and a superb underpinning sax, the song may be about the ties of family even through horrific tests. I’m picturing mourning Islamic fathers grieving for sons turned by radical extremism. But who knows.
And that’s it. Seven songs, a blistering sense of urgency and though the pace might abate towards the end of the album, the quality doesn’t. This is very arguably an album that sits up there with the best in the Bowie canon, and in its title track has what is an absolute career highlight. Buy it.
As a footnote, having just listened to the actual CD. The sound quality is way beyond the disc I burned a couple of days before from a FLAC torrent. Buy the CD or vinyl if you want to hear a masterpiece done justice.