David Bowie Blackstar
The trick for legacy artists is to sonically cull enough of the past to lure the conservative side of the fanbase while charging forward and innovating enough to interest the more adventurous constituents, and if they’ve crafted tuneful songs in the process, they’ve hit the post-peak/comeback bullseye. David Bowie nearly accomplished that hat trick with 2013’s highly lauded The Next Day; if it fell short anywhere, it was in the relatively tame musical explorations—a half-grumble that could only be levied against the guy who made 1970s benchmarks Low and Station to Station.
He ought to escape such complaints with Blackstar, which actually comes closer to that artistic hat trick than The Next Day despite its unconventional melodicism. For Bowie’s 25th album, he found inspiration in New York City’s jazz clubs, where he ultimately found the Donny McCaslin Quartet. He was so taken by the NYC favorites that he sought their help—along with longtime producer Tony Visconti (Hunky Dory)—on his next record. Studio sessions were marked by minimal takes, evidence of an intuition shared between Bowie and the quartet, which you can hear in the freeform, spontaneous and interpretative spirit of the otherwise considered 40-minute, seven-track album.
Not only is 10-minute opener “Blackstar” indicative of this, it sets the tone for, if not summarizes, the whole album. An initial take disorients with its structural left turns, rhythmic shifts and abstract lyricism, but everything crystallizes to surprising earworm effect after subsequent listens—the introductory floating harmonies, the mid-song Krautrock soul, Bowie defining his “blackstar” (or his song’s character) by what it’s not (a gangster, a pop star, a porn star).
A loose formula informs the rest: a hybrid of Bowie’s late 1970s Berlin albums and early-to-mid 1990s output, guided by live breakbeats, and elevated by McCaslin’s Coltrane-esque saxophone passages, Bowie’s still-stirring tenor and, in the closing “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” a beautiful guitar passage by Ben Monder. Aside from the folky “Dollar Days,” fans listening for Bowie’s pop classicism (i.e. “Life on Mars,” “Starman”) might be disappointed, though his sonic trademarks abound—all reprocessed to hypnotic and inspired effect.