Like many folk I was gutted to hear of Motörhead mainman Lemmy’s death just over two weeks ago, though it was a shock it wasn’t entirely surprising given the health problems that had dogged him over the past few years. Much more shocking and surprising was the news yesterday that the legendary David Bowie has also passed away from cancer only two days after his 69th birthday.
It was also just two days after the release of his most recent album “Blackstar”, his second album of new material since his unexpected return to the limelight after nine years away following a heart attack during his 2004 “A Reality Tour”. I suppose I’m getting to the age myself where the heroes that I grew up listening to are going to start passing on with increasing regularity. It’s a depressing thought and one that makes me consider my own mortality too.
Anyway, I spent a chunk of yesterday listening to various parts of Bowie’s long and varied discography. Bowie being the innovator that he was there is a lot of different styles of music in his oeuvre and not all of it has been easy accessible to the listener. Albums such as the drum ‘n’ bass infused “Earthling” or his much-maligned two albums under the Tin Machine banner for instance.
Naturally it’s often his work during the Seventies that are lauded, such is the popularity of 1972’s “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” and of the Berlin trilogy of albums – “Low” (1977), “Heroes” (1977) and “Lodger” (1979).
Personally speaking it was the 1983 album “Let’s Dance”, which featured guitar from the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, that was my first foray into the world of Bowie and subsequent to that I found the singles compilations much easier to digest that some of the parent albums.
Over time, though, I grew to appreciate some of the less immediate material and really enjoyed a lot of his later work, such as 1999’s excellent “Hours…”, 2002’s “Heathen” and the unreleased “Toy” record from 2001. “Reality” (2003) was not as good, to my ears, but I found his comeback album “The Next Day” to be a real return to form, and would definitely recommend the full twenty-two song “Extra” edition!
The latest (and presumably last, unless there’s stuff in the vaults for future releases) album is, of course, the brand new “Blackstar”. So how does it stack up against his back catalogue? Well, to be honest, to begin with I found it hard going, especially after the fairly straight-forward sounds of “The Next Day”.
Having given it repeated plays however, especially in the last twenty-four hours I have to say that it has really grown on me and I now think it’s fabulous!
Kicking off with the near-ten-minute title track, a fusion of drum ‘n’ bass percussion, jazz parts, ethereal vocals, progressive rock style changes and a fairly impenetrable lyric! It takes a few listens to get a handle on, but boy is it a great track.
There are only seven songs on the album, one of which, “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)”, was included on last year’s inappropriately titled “Nothing Has Changed” compilation release and released as a single. Another, “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” was the b-side for that single. Both songs have been overhauled for the new album. “Sue…” ran to nearly seven and a half minutes on the compilation and was a strange jazz / drum ‘n’ bass hybrid. On “Blackstar” three minutes have been shaved off the song’s duration and whilst it retains the drum ‘n’ bass percussion and some jazziness it has a much more rock edge with a prominent guitar part from Ben Monder.
The other “old” song “‘Tis A Pity…” was inspired by a play published in 1633 by English poet / playwright John Ford dealing with the subject of incest. The re-recording of this song is also shorter – though only be thirty-odd seconds – and has less of a dance music vibe about it. Bowie’s original saxophone playing has been replaced by a performance from Donny McCaslin.
The other musicians involved on “Blackstar” (Bowie himself handles acoustic guitar) are keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana – all, together with McCaslin, members of the Donny McCaslin Quartet jazz group.
“Lazarus” is the album’s other single and clocks in at almost six and a half minutes. Tony Visconti, the producer of the record and a long-time Bowie collaborator has stated that the song, which begins with the lines “Look up here, I’m in heaven…”, was just one that refers to Bowie’s then-impending death – though that has really only become clear in the past couple of days now that the lyrics can be seen in the context of Bowie’s passing.
This album was apparently recorded early last year, some months after his diagnosis (and prognosis?) so has presumably been held back and scheduled to see the light of day to coincide Bowie’s death. The fact that the album has been titled “Blackstar” which is said to be a cancer-like lesion of the breast that literally looks like a black star can now be seen to be a clue too. I suppose it’s easier to see the signs in retrospect but you have to admire the way that Bowie put it all out there, albeit in a cloaked way, with very few people seemingly actually aware of his illness until he passed away. There again, as the final song says “I Can’t Give Everything Away”.
In the end this is a wonderful piece of music by a man who has for decades reinvented himself and his art, so makes for a fitting epitaph. Surely a contender for one of the top albums of 2016 already!…
1. Blackstar / 2. ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore / 3. Lazarus / 4. Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) / 5. Girl Loves Me / 6. Dollar Days / 7. I Can’t Give Everything Away