Blackstar - David Bowie (Sony)
Well, this is awkward. David Bowie produces a new album. It's actually pretty good. Easily the best album he's produced since "Low". I know, right? A lot of people hate that one too but an album made by a coke snorting lunatic whilst driving around a car park at seventy five miles an hour is by definition going to sort the likes from the dislikes.
After the Seventies glory years of Glam and guitar solos, things took a turn to the weird. The so called Berlin trilogy featured two good albums "Low" and "Heroes" and the rather jumbled "Lodger". His production of Iggy Pop's "The Idiot" quietly changed the way we'd look at popular music. Joy Division and Public Image Limited were obviously paying attention as well as a veritable army of prissy nerds with their sister's make-up kits and Casio keyboards.
Bowie made a return to commercial success with "Scary Monsters" but continued that commercial ascendancy into the banality of the mid eighties. He began to dress like a stock broker. Then he got so embarrassed that he tried to form a rock band called "Tin Machine". The result was at best average and he still dressed like a stock broker.
More albums followed. "Hours", "Heathen", "Black Tie, White Noise", "Reality". They all had their moments both good and bad. Despite some strong singles, a lot of the tracks just seemed to experiment for experiment's sake. There was an overarching feeling of coldness and detachment. For everything you could admire, there was not much to actually love and champion. Yeah, Bowie was still putting cool stuff out, it was just hard to remember the titles. No one wanted to wear an "Earthling" tee-shirt. He'd fire off some monster single like "Pretty Things are going to Hell" and it would get no traction at all and the next record would be all beeps and clicks. After a heart attack on stage, the albums stopped coming altogether and most of us figured he'd given up for good. It wasn't like he was short of money.
Then, suddenly, there was a come back record and it was pretty damn good. 2013's "The Next Day" sounded pretty much like a Bowie album. It didn't disappoint on first listen or even the second but - inexplicably - it quickly found its way to the back of the pile. Like I said, there was nothing wrong with it. It's themes of aging were poignant enough. It was pleasant and almost comforting with a very British quirky eccentricity. But does growing old make great subject matter for great music?
The Next Day's initial release had come on the heels of a rather on the nose video of the track "Where are We Now?" featuring crusty faced sort of puppet things making cups of tea in Berlin. It took a bit of time to disassociate the music from the image. And whilst the songs underneath were strong, they didn't really touch the zeitgeist in the way Bowie had so often times done before. Or maybe it did catch the theme's his fans were thinking about but nobody particularly wanted to go there. Whilst the Stones told us it was a drag growing old, they pointed their finger elsewhere. No. She's growing old. Not me.
"Blackstar" arrived on the back of an equally confronting video. I did my best not to watch it. I wanted to hear the album without the unpleasant taint of image. Several recent albums have been lessened in my eyes by heavy handed videos trying to make too specific or obvious a point. I just want to hear the songs and make my own pictures. Is that too much to ask? The video is pretty dense; layered with obscure reference piled onto obscure reference. The eye covering Bowie wears mimics that worn by a character called Milan in a recent series of Wonder Woman comics. The character of Milan is a barely disguised stand in for the late Chicago outsider artist Wesley Willis. You could write books about the video but I just want to play the disc.
It was immediately apparent on first listen to the "Blackstar" album is that the new obsession in lyrics was not about growing old but the other thing. The one where you stop growing old. It's basically Goth as fuck. I read reviews by other people who talked about nonsense lyrics. But the content couldn't have been more obvious. The lyrics hung there like an accident waiting to happen. In fact, some of it hovered there like a monstrous knock knock joke awaiting the punch in the gut line. "What the Fuck happened to Monday". Indeed.
By Sunday, I had played the disc maybe four or five times. I had decided to write a review. (For those of you who haven't noticed, I'm only writing reviews about discs I like these days. Go on, check.) The theme of the review was simple. Bowie finally delivers a consistently great album. It holds up to repeat listens. It's a bit on the dark-side but I quite like that about it. Sax is out to the front. The tripping over your feet drum beats that some kids dig is in there too but not in an in your face trying to be trendy way. More sort of Kraut rocky, I guess. But a modern take of it. And as I said, fans of "Low" will feel right at home here. Despite a ten minute opening track, nothing feels indulgent or wasteful. Essentially, Bowie does everything right and leaves no embarrassing clangers that you would otherwise have to excuse.
Then the punch line hit. It's Monday and I'm walking through Campsie, one of the more predominantly Asian areas in Sydney. In fact, there are two white faces on the street and the other one is like a dirty sixty year old tramp in the street and he's looking at me crying. In a scene straight out of the song "Five Years", he told me Bowie was dead.
Suddenly, writing a review of this album doesn't seem that important. Everyone else is writing these whacking great monuments about how Bowie changed their lives. And I'm not a big Bowie fan. I did check and I do seem to have every studio album he put out since "Man who sold the world" but they seem to have arrived more by accident than design. He's been more of a side line interest. Someone who always seemed to be around the music I liked, hanging out with all the musicians I actually did think were cool. Imagine if you followed those things they write in modern record reviews... All that "If you like this, try that" bullshit. My complete Bowie collection arose out of trying something else like what I actually liked.
But that was the thing about Bowie. He always did seem to be there in some corner of your life whether you wanted him there or not. (As Ron Peno once said "Look what Bowie is doing to Iggy" before destroying the nearest Bowie LP.) Bowie was not the pop star you wanted. He was that pop star's friendly old uncle. And by extension, he kind of became everyone's favorite friendly old uncle.
That doesn't mean that I think Bowie wasn't any good. On the contrary, he's managed to put out a fine body of work. Even the most jaded and resentful reviewer could compile a CD of Bowie stuff they could listen to. But he's also managed to put out stuff that is - quite frankly - embarrassing. The only Eighties album worse than "Let's Dance" would have to be Iggy Pop's "Blah Blah Blah". And to be fair, Bowie admitted that by saying the times he most tried to please his audience were his greatest artistic failures.
So, I should tell you one of my Bowie stories? Everyone else has. I've noticed half the world trying to make Bowie's death about them. No. I can't be fucked. The Old Dame did his best to make a decent statement on the way out. It's better you listen to it yourself. Remember what I said about this being his best album since "Low". That was before. The punch line won me over. "Blackstar" is Bowie's best and most coherent album. You see, Bowie used to never rock out. He'd distance himself emotionally. He'd hang with Lou and Iggy and aspire to that loss of control. But Bowie was English, a watcher and had to feed things through a rational artistic brain.
With "Blackstar" he finally gazed into the darkness until the darkness looked back at him.