DAVID Bowie is full of birthday surprises these days, writes Fiona Shepherd.
David Bowie | Blackstar | Rating ****
Three years ago, he was the bearer rather than the recipient of the glorious gift of his first new recorded music in a decade. The Next Day was all the more special for being entirely unanticipated by anyone outside Bowie’s tightest inner circle. And now he celebrates his 69th birthday with the deliciously weird Blackstar, a glowering, more inscrutable proposition than its extrovert predecessor.
This time, Bowie has dropped more hints on the path to release - three of the album’s seven tracks have already been made publicly available, accounting for half the album’s running time, all presaging an accessible, tuneful but considerably more far-out collection than anything else which is likely to make as big a commercial impact at this end of the year.
It is not surprising that progressive hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar has been name-dropped as a reference by producer Tony Visconti, given that he is one of the few mainstream musicians of the day to push the envelop in any way.
But Bowie ultimately creates his own hermetic sound world. Passing over the cast of old pals who populated The Next Day, he has recruited – although summoned might be a better description - a modern jazz quartet led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin to be his fluid backing band on this masterful collage of offbeat rhythms, unconventional song structures, lithe, unexpected melodic lines and typically oblique lyrics.
The ten-minute title track, already used as the theme for heist drama The Last Panthers, may or may not be about Isis, its solemn, portentous lyrics delivered in almost Gregorian tones over intuitive drum’n’bass rhythms, layered up with bursts of stately synths and languid sax, before a disorientating prog rock breakdown provides the bridge into a melodic soul pop passage. It couldn’t get any weirder if David Lynch directed the video… which he has.
The elegantly tortured and quietly anthemic Lazarus has already premiered in the stage show of the same name, Bowie’s idiosyncratic spin on a jukebox musical, which revisits the character of Newton from The Man Who Fell To Earth, while the unsettled, skittering, slippery Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), originally released in 2014, is reworked as an offbeat treat for fans of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.
There is no compromise for the rest of the ride. Tis Pity She’s A Whore, titled after John Ford’s bloody Jacobean tragedy, is an athletic dance of beefy drumming, controlled, keening sax and a twisting vocal melody which lands blows from all angles, while Girl Loves Me demands to know “where the f*** did Monday go?” over a bleak, strung-out funk backing.
Dollar Days is a light pastoral in comparison, garlanded with a soulful, yearning sax solo, though McCaslin and guitarist Ben Monder trowel on the indulgent theatrics a little heavily on the closing I Can’t Give Everything Away. However, this minor quibble doesn’t detract from the overall trip, which is as enigmatic as its creator.