Bowie is back. Sure, 2013’s The Next Day served as his proper comeback after a long hiatus from recording, but despite a strong single, it still felt a bit like Basic Bowie. ★ (pronounced “Blackstar”), released today, January 8, 2016, on his 69th birthday, is a different beast. His 28th studio album, the seven-track LP is dark, mysterious, and, at times, all over the place. It’s also his best work in years.
David Bowie has not been idle since the release of his last LP; he also co-wrote Lazarus, an Off-Broadway production based on Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring Michael C. Hall and Cristin Milioti. On top of his intimate involvement with the production (reportedly including the casting), he wrote its titular theme song, which also appears on ★. After being approached by director Johan Renck to develop a theme for his new TV series The Last Panthers, Bowie wrote “Blackstar,” which would become the lead single on ★. He wrote most of the album alone, at home, but when it was time to put it together on record, he leaned on some outsized talents, both old and new.
★ was recorded in New York at The Magic Shop with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti. For his backing band, Bowie recruited a local group, the Donny McCaslin Quartet, which he heard at a recent session at West Village jazz spot Bar55. The quartet features bassist Tim Lefebvre, drummer Mark Guiliana, and keyboardist Jason Lindner. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy also made some contributions, adding percussion to two tracks and lending some vintage gear to the production. Lindner told Rolling Stone that Murphy “filtered some of my sounds through this machine he carries to all his sessions. It’s called the EMS Synthi.” The guitarist Ben Monder made contributions to “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days.”
Bowie might be a rock star, but he decided long ago not to play by the rules of that game. He doesn’t tour (and hasn’t performed live since 2006), doesn’t do interviews, and outside of making videos, he doesn’t do anything to personally promote his records. Granted, he’s one of the few people who can afford to maintain that distance from the commercial side of music-making, but it’s nonetheless refreshing to see an artist who lets the art speak for itself. This freedom manifests itself in strange ways; determined to make “Blackstar” the album’s lead single, Bowie had the originally 11-minute-plus track cut down to under ten minutes, because iTunes has an arbitrary limit on tracks it will allow for individual sale. After watching the bizarre spookfest that is the “Blackstar” video, it’s clear that this is how he wanted the album introduced to the world — and it’s fascinating that he would edit his own work to ensure it happened.
So, what does it sound like? The Guardian paradoxically calls it “electro acoustic jazz.” (You can stream the album in its entirety below, via Spotify.) In an interview with Rolling Stone, Visconti betrays one of the album’s major influences: “We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar… we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock and roll.”
Rock and roll or not, the entire record broods with a slow, existential burn. On “Lazarus,” McCaslin’s sax moans atop a pulsing bass line, accented by clangs from Monder’s electric guitar. “Girl Loves Me” takes cues from obscure British dialects, namely Polari, gay slang from mid-century London, and Nadsat, the Russian-English hybrid slang from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. The ballad that Bowie reportedly wrote during one morning of the three week-long recording sessions, “Dollar Days,” is unquestionably the prettiest material on the album. McCaslin’s sax stylings certainly evoke signifiers of jazz, and the record certainly fuses several styles and genres, including hip-hop, industrial, glam, and even early British dubstep. But it doesn’t feel like a jazz, or even a — gasp — jazz-fusion record. He’s somehow made a jazz quartet sound futuristic.
Bowie’s often-mysterious forms of expression reliably inspire intense and overwrought analysis of his references and signifiers, of which there are plenty. And yes, there are plenty of religious (the “Blackstar” video’s bible-thumping Bowie and the song’s “You’re a flash in the pan / I’m the Great I Am” lyric) and occult references (the “button-eye man” and crucified scarecrows, not to mention ★’s heavy Aleister Crowley vibes, an influence that dates back to Bowie’s early albums). Late last year, McCaslin sent bloggers into a tizzy with his assertion that Bowie told him the lead single was Bowie’s response to the rise of ISIS.
Since he’s played (and discarded) so many memorable characters over his storied career, it’s easy to draw lines between otherwise innocuous words and images in Bowie’s current work and the storied signifiers of his past. Indeed, I found myself recalling the lyrics of “Station to Station” (“The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”) while watching “button-eye man” in the video for “Blackstar” — how could I not? Such are the perils of Bowie scholarship; everything feels significant.
Is the skeletal spaceman in the “Blackstar” video supposed to be Major Tom? Does it even matter? Bowie has famously evoked the spaceman signifier throughout his career, so the idea of an interplanetary traveller carries weight regardless of whether he’s evoking his first iconic character. And indeed, “Lazarus” is sung from the perspective of The Man Who Fell to Earth‘s Thomas Newton, another prominent spaceman of the Bowie canon. But this kind of analysis puts too much emphasis on how he might be mining his old work for ideas, trying to make some trite connection to a decades-old character or persona. If we know anything about Bowie, it’s that he possesses an infinitely curious mind and a ravenous appetite for newness; outside of the nuggets Tony Visconti occasionally bestows upon us, we can only guess wildly at what fresh source material he’s been ingesting to fuel his creative impulses.
The one thing that is abundantly clear on ★ is that death and mortality are at the forefront of Bowie’s mind. The tone of the entire album is unsettled, evoking an uncertainty born of years of exploration. Sonically, this is driven by the music’s syncopated percussion, the disjointed rhythms visually embodied by Bowie’s movements in the videos. Sure, his songs have always included themes and images of death, but here, it feels more personal, more intimate. Blessed with godlike genes, he’s aged gracefully, but on ★ he does not at all seem comfortable with his own impending mortality. For someone who’s led a life as exceptional as Bowie’s, “What’s next?” holds its own unique brand of terror. Does Bowie believe in the afterlife? And if so, what does it look like?
This new perspective is probably best explained by Renck, who also directed the “Blackstar” video. In an interview with Noisey, he takes a stab at elaborating on the perspective Bowie brought to their visual collaboration:
“…I do think that there’s reason to believe if you’re a prolific artist and going into your late 60s you’d at least start to think about mortality. In doing that you start thinking about your own relevance to history in a different way. When you’re young and you’re doing stuff, you’re making music, directing, making art, it’s all future directed. You want to change stuff onward. And when you get older—this applies to me—you think about the things you want to do and how it will be perceived by your children one day. The opposite of the frontal trajectory, there’s almost a biographical aspect to it, you know? So maybe you change your thinking.”
The intentional fallacy teaches us that not only is it impossible to really know what an author intends to express with their work, it’s actually undesirable. Regardless of Bowie’s intentions, ★ makes us feel something — something strong, something unsettling. Isn’t that enough? At 69 years old, David Bowie is still making music, and it’s as weird and affecting as he’s ever been. We should all be so lucky.