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The Observer JANUARY 10, 2016 - by Kitty Empire
DAVID BOWIE: BLACKSTAR - URGENT, CONTEMPORARY AND ELLIPTICAL
The first David Bowie album without a picture of the sixty-nine-year-old artist on its cover substitutes a shot of another star - a stark black symbol, into which a great deal can be read. This ideogram presides over a startling record that sounds far more urgent, contemporary and elliptical than Bowie's 2013 comeback, The Next Day, an album that fell unexpectedly from the sky.
Although Blackstar is a Bowie album through and through, suffused with his distinct melodic voice and Bowie's preferred instrument of the '80s - the saxophone - there's a scorched earth feel to its seven, often lengthy, tracks. Lifelong Bowie personnel have been replaced here by a searching jazz outfit led by New York saxophonist Donny McCaslin; Kendrick Lamar's own bleak, busy, jazz-tinged hip-hop masterpiece of 2015, To Pimp a Butterfly, is an acknowledged reference point. LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy - one of Bowie's most obvious musical offspring - contributes beats to two tracks.
Links to the past remain - producer Tony Visconti; Lazarus, a central track, also appears in a Bowie-penned, off-Broadway musical sequel to Walter Tevis's 1963 novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth, the film of which featured Bowie in the starring role. But nothing here suggests an artist in his seventieth year, preoccupied with dignity maintenance. Bowie's "cock" makes an appearance in the tumbling, skronking 'Tis a Pity She Was A Whore, a song that references the seventeenth-century play by John Ford, vorticism and offers the arch, unclassical line: "Man, she punched me like a dude."
Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) finds a dissonant, dislocated-sounding Bowie reassuring the titular woman that "the x-ray's fine"; later, he buries her ("I pushed you beneath the weeds"); the music's pell-mell, cinematic malevolence, reworked from its previous incarnation, leaves you in little doubt of his culpability. Even more mysterious, Girl Loves Me is sung in a mixture of A Clockwork Orange's Nadsat and Polari, the gay slang of bygone Soho. "Where the fuck did Monday go?" yelps Bowie, and you guess he is not merely talking about the unpleasant shock of the working week.
You have to assume Bowie is tackling myriad theatrical voices as Blackstar throws up one unsettling scenario after another, with little obvious connection other than unease and the outrageously good soundtrack in which they are set - weighty with percussion and genre fusions, saturated with instruments, bleak, and unexpectedly, towards the end, resolved. Lazarus has a Greek chorus of sad brass and a breathtaking key change; the ten-minute title track is as awe-inspiring a piece of music as you could ever expect from an established artist. The final track tantalises and reassures, all fuzzy keys and wry harmonica. "I can't give everything away," sings Bowie, as though raising an eyebrow at the frenzy of allusion that has just played out.