David Bowie

Blackstar Sony

David Bowie

by Michael Dwyer | January 5th, 2016 10:25:AM EST

The stars are all lining up now. Can't say he didn't warn us. The end of days has been nigh since Ziggy Stardust was a pup. By Scary Monsters the scary clown was hysterically flagging that "It's No Game". And the whole world, as we know, has truly gone to hell since those giddy costume drama days.

Effectively the second album by the reborn hermit enigma of New York, Blackstar is as much a thrilling progression as a discomforting descent into some jazz-tainted underworld a million miles from the shits and giggles of rock & roll.

Unlike his shock re-entry of 2013, The Next Day, Bowie flagged this revolution a year back with the unnerving free jazz murder ballad "Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)". That one's here, along with its hurtling and tumbling B-side, "'Tis A Pity She Was a Whore"; each subtly remade by the sinewy band led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin and seconded from a West Village club.

December's off-Broadway premiere of Bowie's first stage musical, Lazarus, further muddied the conceptual trail of what would be his 25th studio album. "Lazarus" is the only song from there to make this cut: an ominous, bass and sax-driven creeper that might read as autobiography from any artist who hadn't made a career of masks and mirrors: "Look up here, I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen/I've got drama can't be stolen/Everybody knows me now."

We do and we don't, of course – especially since he shrugged off the interview treadmill to let his art speak for itself in riddles like "Girl Loves Me", yodelled in coded phrases apparently cribbed from A Clockwork Orange and vintage London slang. "Where the fuck did Monday go?" is the indignant refrain as the other days of the week slip through staccato stabs of bass and drums.

One can imagine a glimpse of the old cockney Dave in "Dollar Days", too: the loveliest of these seven tracks by a fair margin with its comfortable guitar/ piano chord sequence rising to one of McCaslin's sweetest solos. "If I never see the English evergreens I'm running to," the singer croons, "It's nothing to me, it's nothing to see."

In the anxiously ageing vein of '99's Hours..., cut with the shell-shocked nostalgia of "Where Are We Now?", it's a song about falling and fading that kicks hard with the heartbreaking refrain, "Don't believe for just one second I'm forgetting you/I'm trying to, I'm dying too."

But it's the dark gravity of the 10-minute title track to which the rest of this tonally unsettling, organically rich and dread-filled album succumbs. With its triptych structure and transparent allusions to demagogues and executions in the dim enlightenment of "a solitary candle", it's a cinematic nightmare of the religious war that some, it seems, would will into destiny.

Nothing has changed, then, and everything has changed, to quote another relatively recent lyric in one of the most consistently doom and gloomy anthologies in pop. The spark of wonder that Blackstar brings is the way in which Bowie continues to recalibrate what that last word means.

Featured illustration by Leo Coyte.

Topics: David Bowie
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