Saturday, January 9, 2016

AP Album Review: Bowie's "Black Star" Full of Sax and Violence Is An Astonishing Glorious Mindf*ck

David Bowie's seven song album "Black Star", simply put, is filled with so much mind blowing artistry. From a purely sonic perspective to say it is lush would be an understatement and at 69 years old, Bowie with long time friend and producer, Tony Visconti still is able to go places both aurally and thematically where no one else goes. Bowie with his art school aesthetic has always created more than just songs. In a way, his compositions feel like artistic impressions of songs as part of performance art. In this way, many of his songs, (at least his best songs) feel like gateways into other worlds and other stories. His best work have a cinematic quality. His best work feels like introductions to larger sonic novels.

The relatively short "Black Star" for the most part rises to this level. Bowie's songs feel like flickering images on a film reel full of alienation, falls into mental distress, World War 1, death, rebirth, violence and sax. Yes, a lot of sax. There is a subset of the population that hate the instrument. If you love saxophone / horn sounds then you must hear this album. If you detest those sounds then you must hear this album as well. Bowie, the multi-instrumentalist who (as you well know) also plays saxophone, has always used this sometimes misunderstood instrument with great effect. He played it early on and most notably in Soul Love from the 1972 "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" and there is the David Sanborn sax work in Young Americans and the "sax version" of John I'm Only Dancing. And, let's not forget Bowie's 1977 hallucinatory trip-fest "Low" which is that album that his record company didn't want to release (those are often the best kind). Again, there is a lot of sax and horns on "Blackstar" but it is not the cheesy affair that deeply disturbs the sax haters out there.

Speaking of the "Low" album, I did think of that masterwork while listening to "Blackstar". Not only is Tony Visconti's hand felt on both but the ethereal beautifully strange tone, the Brian Eno influence or at least it's ghost is present here as well as so many interesting inspirations. That is the thing with Bowie, as much as he is this iconic artist who makes music that inspires others, he always takes from others too, influenced by sounds and musicians from all over the world. You can feel those world influences the most on the title track which shares the albums name.  The song Blackstar is bathed in Andalusian /Arabic tones propelled by drums that rush and slow down within their own beat become unhinged at times and then tightening back up. I thought of Phil Selway (is that you?). Bowie seems to harmonize with himself in a haunting almost chanting way while, horns, strings, keys and guitars take you to other places. The song deconstructs and shifts into an almost fable-esque sound in that kind of "Neverending Story" kind of way but not for very long. The low horn section and refrain "I'm a Blackstar" has that sweet Bowie funk laden 90's meets 50's sway. There are so much dense musical cues here. The music metamorphosis is so absolutely interesting, shifting your creative / emotional point of reference as the track shifts back to the Andalusian tones.  

Tis A Pity She Was A Whore is just flat out amazing. While it is the B-side from Bowie's "Sue (or in a Season of Crime)" 2014 single, it feels right placed on this album. With horns that spin out of control, disconnected piano and a savage bass line / drum beat, Bowie's ode to the raw violence of Word War 1 takes it's name from English playwright John Ford 's controversial 1633 play Tis Pity She's A Whore. While the music swirls with wild abandon (reminds me a bit of Radiohead's National Anthem) and Bowie coos lines like "She punched me like a dude" the twisted frame work feels so out of control. A beautiful chaotic affair. 

Lazarus is a stand out track and was written for Bowie's off Broadway production "Lazarus" based on Walter Tevis' novel The Man Who Fell To Earth follows the lead character Thomas Gerome Newton 30 years later as played by Dexter's Michael C. Hall. Bowie played the character in the 1976 screen adaptation (a weird movie worth seeing). This track despite it's spartan introduction wraps around your psyche almost instantly. It creeps up on you with dour horns, a zombie walk beat and an absolutely sultry bass line and by the time Bowie's vocals come in drenched in a somber, mesmerizing lilt (framed by cool as fuck guitars) you are fully strapped in for the ride. As the song progresses, it even gets cooler, the drums throw out cagey riffs, the horns swell more, the bass runs perfectly and gets heavier. The musical jam two thirds in is so lush and wonderfully erratic and then the song slows with high bass lines and that evocative guitar (reminded me in the end of the Cure's Forest a bit).

Sue (Or In A Season of Crime) feels like a Bowie spy caper song. Of all the songs on "Black Star" it is the most predictable, at least musically, and while the jammy nature is kind of fun, I must admit that I am not falling / crushing for this track. Maybe it is because, to me, it feels totally out of place with the other tracks even though it is thematically directly tied to Tis A Pity She Was A Whore

Girl Loves Me does feel unbelievably abstract and it is weird to hear Bowie repeatedly drop the F bomb. I thought of 1980 Scary Monsters for some reason. Maybe it is the vocal stance in Bowie's performance or the filtered sound to the backing vocals. It has been reported that Bowie has been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and Girl Loves Me with it's cadence and tone feel like it may have some creative connection. It is weird but so hypnotic. Bowie sings half the song in Nadsat, the language used in "A Clockwork Orange" and half in Polari, the slang used in gay clubs in 70's London. The result is utterly surprising and only, ONLY, something Bowie would think of. This man at 69 can still sound deceptively dangerous. 

With all the abstractions, veiled historical references, death and despair so far on "Blackstar"- Dollar Days sounds like a lovely diversion, at least musically. When the dashes of lyrics soak in there are as much poisoned images as before, "I'm dying to... push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again... I'm trying to ....We bitches tear our magazines... Those Oligarchs with foaming mouths phone now and then...." and the poetry begs to be deciphered. That might take a while but the song feels like a tortured ballad of sorts about another time.

The last track, I Can't Give Everything Away starts off with a harmonica in the background taken form "A Career In a New Town" from Bowie's 1977 "Low" album. The song swings more than the other tracks as Bowie harmonizes with himself, "I know something is very wrong, the pulse returns the prodigal sons, the black out hearts, the flowered news, with skull designs upon my shoes" there is something in the vocal phrasings that made me think of Aladin Sane a bit and of the track Seven from his 1999 "Hours" album. Awash in a sustained synth, I Can't Give Everything Away is a sad dance but a dance nonetheless with long sustaining guitar leads and a swaying performance by Bowie that is simply beautiful. 

"Blackstar" is an album that is as much about a creative re-birth as it is a creative death or giving up of things past. There is one thing that is without a doubt true. Every track on this album could not of been crafted by anyone other than David Bowie. This sounds obvious, but what I mean to say is that there is no artist that is as distinct and recognizable as Bowie. You can, for example, hear a Black Keys song that you might mistake for another artist or a Beck song that might sound like someone else etc. You will never (EVER) mistake Bowie for another artist. He also still challenges you as a listener and challenges himself as an artist. On "Blackstar", David Bowie, once again leads us down the rabbit hole where we can be something other than human and with beautiful abstractions and emotionally moving dangerous grooves he fucks with our hearts and minds in the best possible way.
"Blackstar" is one of those albums that will only get better over time.
Robb Donker 

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