David Bowie – Blackstar

We will begin with a confession: if the events of last Sunday hadn’t happened, I am not sure I would have listened to this record.

I have mulled over this for the last few days and I am pretty sure that for me,  Blackstar would have fallen into the same category as his last record, 2013’s ‘The Next Day’ and every other Bowie album stretching back to the Tin Machine days.

The pile marked irrelevant. Out of touch. No longer vital.

Before even listening to any of those records, that would have been my perception based on nothing more than the fact that I had lost interest, I had joined the ranks of lapsed Bowie fans. I have no real excuse other than there is so much new music out there waiting to be discovered that we can be very quick to consign once admired artists to the slag heap reserved for the ignored.

I was definitely a fan growing up, always aware of Bowie’s strangely seductive otherness. He looked and sounded like a pop star, but not a pop star from the same village as say, Abba or Billy Joel. He conveyed a simple yet powerful message through his music and ever changing personas –it’s ok to be you. That might not seem like much, but for gawky, confused teenagers unsure of their sexual identity, of their place in the world, it was everything.

I was in the club up until 1984; even some of his less critically acclaimed work continued to enthral me. ‘Let’s Dance’ may not have been a creative high point but I listened to nothing else at the time.  The poorly received ‘Absolute Beginners’?  Loved it.  But then I began to drift away, slowly at first but by the time Tin Machine II was released in 1991, I was gone completely. Membership to the Bowie fan club cancelled.

I paid scant attention to everything he has done since then – I was aware that he was intermittently making music, but that was it. Sure, I still occasionally listened to the old stuff, that golden period from 1971-1980 that yielded some of his most impressive work, but I would no longer have classed myself as a Bowie fan.

Last Sunday night, in response to some of the recent glowing reviews, I tweeted something to the effect that I hadn’t listened to Bowie’s latest album, and wasn’t going to until someone reassured me there was no sax on it.

It was a joke, a poor one at that, but not without some truth – I fucking loath the sound of the saxophone. An irrational, stubborn pet hate that I can probably trace back to Kenny G or some other 80s pop luminary.

On Monday morning, I turned on my phone at 6.45am – someone had shared a message from Bowie’s Facebook page.

‘David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer….’blackstar_

I read it repeatedly; It had to be a hoax, perhaps even a crude marketing ploy to generate interest in the new album.  You see, people like David Bowie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, they don’t just die. They are always there, even if it is just on the periphery, even if our love affair with their music has long since cooled.

But as a grim Monday morning rolled on, it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t some warped joke, and that no amount of fervent hoping would make it so.

So here we are, listening to Blackstar.

And of course, it’s fucking swathed in sax. It’s all over the bloody record. But here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter because Blackstar is an incredible album. Brave, bold, vital, relevant – everything you would expect of Bowie in his prime, yet nothing remotely like anything you might expect from an aging pop star in the twilight of his career.

Producer Tony Visconti came out and said earlier this week that it was his parting gift to fans, or words to that effect.

It doesn’t sound like a gift. There are no neatly resolved ‘goodbye’ moments – it is oblique and cryptic, infused with melancholy, regret, world weariness and more than a little defiance.

It’s hard to listen to it now, burdened as we are by the added poignancy of knowing he is no longer with us. Last weekend, he released this beautiful music that teems with creativity and life and now he is gone. Every time you listen, it’s like a punch to the gut.

There are clues sprinkled throughout the album that he knew. That this would be his final call, that death was imminent.  Perhaps facing that stark reality had the effect of spurring him on to one last great surge of creative energy. There is desperation in these songs, a desperate need to be heard, to rage against the dying of the light.

The much touted jazz influences lend the album its edgy, experimental tone; Bowie drafted in progressive jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin and additional musicians from his circle. The result is an album that sounds unique, out of time, yet in an odd way, very contemporary.

The glitchy, staggering beat of the title track, effectively two songs spliced together to create one eerie mini masterpiece. The sombre ‘Lazarus’ with its opening line ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven…’ conveys  a mood of quiet desperation while the beautiful  ‘Dollar Days’, the most traditional sounding track on the album mixes heartbreak with a glint of defiance when he sings ‘If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to, It’s nothing to me, It’s nothing to see, I’m dying to push their backs against the grain, And fool them all again and again…’

 We don’t want to reach closing song ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’; we don’t want to hear that repeated refrain knowing that this is it, there will be no more. David Jones became David Bowie, the Man Who Fell to Earth and stayed for a while to entertain, bewilder and blow our minds.

This week, it is only proper than fans mourn his death but long after the grief subsides, his legacy will remain; Blackstar is a near perfect footnote to that legacy.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)