Jan 08, 2016 Web Exclusive
Not every examination of a pop record requires an elaborate look at context and character, but anything by David Bowie demands it. In some superficial sense, Bowie's albums are vehicles for abstract character arcs, and each one leads into the next by either following through on previous themes or abandoning them altogether. The one constant of David Bowie's career is his persistent evolution, an enduring legacy defined by change.
Naturally, ★ (or Blackstar) is no different, if we are to understand this as the second act of Bowie's triumphant return to form after a decade of silence, first releasing The Next Day seemingly from nowhere in 2013, and now following it up with an arty, jazz-fueled album that a lot of critics are claiming is what The Next Day should have been in the first place. They're wrong, by the way. ★'s strangeness is accentuated by The Next Day's familiarity.
In fact, it was no accident that our first glimpse of David Bowie before The Next Day hit shelves was the video for "Where Are We Now," shot in a cluttered office of old memorabilia, props from old videos, and costumes, projecting a video of the singer onto a puppet while the man himself waited in the shadows in a back corner peeking around to see if the time was right. The Next Day wasn't groundbreaking by design; it was tepid and energetic, purely 21st century rock, but now we can appreciate it as a prologue for some greater arc.
Now enter ★, a mesmerizing experiment in pop music that pulses like a gritty noir fever dream. This new band, headed up by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, provides a tighter and more intriguing sonic backdrop for Bowie's warbling and mystique, reminiscent of his excellent mid-'90s output (particularly the cyberpunk concept album Outside). There are plenty of moments, such as "Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)," where it sounds like the music is running away from him. Other tracks are much more reserved, savoring the dark grooves that are insatiably relentless. But the album as a whole is decidedly anti-rock, and yet not unfamiliar territory for Bowie. Of course, with a repertoire as impressive to include both Let's Dance and Hunky Dory, there are going to be traces of the past scattered throughout the 42 minutes of ★ (for instance "Lazarus" is annoyingly similar Heathen's "Slip Away"), but this is as close to a complete musical reinvention as you can get after a lifetime of such reinventions.
There is a dark elegance to ★ that is appropriately suited to fully enshrine Bowie in a whole new persona once again. In the video for the title track we are introduced to a mysterious, blindfolded character that gyrates and twitches, and offers theatrically expressive faces. Bowie portrays the haunting figure again in the most recent "Lazarus" video, where he is seen bed-ridden while contemplating the freedom that awaits him at death; "This way or no way/You know I'll be free/Just like that bluebird/Now, ain't that just like me?" This freedom might be a rebirth, of course, given the song title's origins, but made more poignant by Bowie's current state as an artist. A rock star comeback is one thing, but rising up after death? That's a trope as intrinsic to Bowie's art as space or makeup. Bowie's entire career is a continuous cycle of death and rebirth, killing off old personas, and dragging their corpses on through later verses. What makes ★ different is that this persona begins its life longing and romanticizing for death.
But speaking of defining elements of Bowie's music, his incorporation of sci-fi themes doesn't end with his ability to create sounds that echo a kind of '70s glam kitsch. There is a cosmic horror element to the best of Bowie's space rock, an existential fear of the unknown, whether that unknown is a postmodern struggle with a technological society or a drug-fueled paranoia. On ★, Bowie has his back to the void, and he's riding it like a wave. He is the cosmic horror, an embodiment of death anxiety that is eternal and crushing. What else can explain his unparalleled quality well into his sixth decade as a pop star?
Still, despite this loose experiment with terror, ★ ends on a more resolute and enigmatic note with "I Can't Give Everything Away," which may be the best song on the record aside from the title track. The conclusion is mostly a refrain of maintaining mystery, but it could also be heard as a hint that Bowie still has characters to greet us and tricks up his sleeve, despite this latest death obsessed treatise. In the meantime, ★, amidst all its trappings, is a puzzle begging for examination, and a solidly unique work from an artist who is no stranger to breaking boundaries. (www.davidbowie.com/blackstar/)
Author rating: 8/10
Average reader rating: 8/10
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