Halfway through the nine minute, album-opening title tune to Blackstar, David Bowie briefly steps out of a maze. Up to that point, the song is an icy meditation, an alien chant echoing with electronic chatter and neo-Eastern (or simply otherworldly) yearning. But during a brief refrain, Bowie reverses course and lets a ray of pop sunshine beam out of the haze. It’s a tease, of course. But experiencing this momentary but beguiling outburst is akin to hearing Frankie Valli erupt out of a Philip Glass composition. It’s that strange and that fascinating.
Much of Blackstar echoes such a similarly darting and quirky mindset. Released last week on Bowie’s 69th birthday -- and sadly two days before his death after a battle with cancer -- the record differs considerably from the more elemental and rock directed The Next Day, the singer’s 2013 comeback album after a decade long disappearing act. Blackstar is one of the more abstract but ambient albums Bowie has constructed. Amazingly, it’s also one of his most listenable.
The hubbub surrounding the recording sessions was that the singer had utilized a pack of New York jazz rats, including saxophonist Donny McCaslin (whose credits include Gary Burton, Dave Douglas and Steps Ahead) as his studio band. But Blackstar is no more a jazz record and than it is a rock outing. It echoes the more anti-pop corners of such late 1970s Bowie classics as Low and Heroes, right down to the guitar whine breezing through the otherwise summery strains of synths, sax and harmonica that close out the album during I Can’t Give Everything Away that mimics Robert Fripp’s gelatinous ooze on Heroes’ title tune from nearly four decades ago.
In some instances, Blackstar may seem bleak and distant – a scrapbook of sparse soundscapes built around varying rhythms, McCaslin’s myriad sax sounds and Bowie’s often chant-like singing. But the music is continually rhythmic. No matter how spacious, fractured or contained it becomes, a peculiar lyricism remains. You hear it in the slow, desperate arc that hangs over Lazarus and the way McCaslin sounds like a solemn but soulful foil. The rhythm is translated into a more elemental groove during ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, where a sax and drum rampage flesh out a reticent encounter (“she punched me like a dude”) while keyboard orchestration rushes under the frenzy like a cavern river. The purposeful crack and echo in Bowie’s voice during the initial verse of Sue (or in a Season of Crime) sounds like an interplanetary yodel while Dollar Days warms up Blackstar ever so slightly with its piano/sax design and the light resignation of Bowie’s singing.
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Still, such peculiar hints of accessibility don’t change the overall wintry spell cast by Blackstar. At once artfully organic but still full of electric abstraction, the music is seemingly icy to the touch but thaws into delicious cool once you invite it in.
(Editor’s note: Walter Tunis filed this review mere hours before news broke of David Bowie’s death. The second paragraph mention of his passing is the only alteration to the review.)