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Pitchfork JANUARY 7, 2016 - by Ryan Dombal
DAVID BOWIE: BLACKSTAR
David Bowie has died many deaths yet he is still with us. He is popular music's ultimate Lazarus: Just as that Biblical figure was beckoned by Jesus to emerge from his tomb after four days of nothingness, Bowie has put many of his selves to rest over the last half-century, only to rise again with a different guise. This is astounding to watch, but it's more treacherous to live through; following Lazarus' return, priests plotted to kill him, fearing the power of his story. And imagine actually being such a miracle man - resurrection is a hard act to follow.
Bowie knows all this. He will always have to answer to his epochal work of the 1970s, the decade in which he dictated several strands of popular and experimental culture, when he made reinvention seem as easy as waking up in the morning. Rather than trying to outrun those years, as he did in the '80s and '90s, he is now mining them in a resolutely bizarre way that scoffs at greatest-hits tours, nostalgia, and brainless regurgitation.
His new off-Broadway musical is called Lazarus, and it turns Bowie's penchant for avatars into an intriguing shell game: The disjointed production features actor Michael C. Hall doing his best impression of Bowie's corrupted, drunk, and immortal alien from the 1976 art film The Man Who Fell To Earth. Trapped in a set that mimics a Manhattan penthouse, Hall presses himself up to his high skyscraper windows as he sings a new Bowie song also called Lazarus. "This way or no way, you know, I'll be free," he sings, smudging his hands against the glass. "Just like that bluebird." Bowie sings the same song on Blackstar, an album that has him clutching onto remnants from the past as exploratory jazz and the echoes of various mad men soundtrack his free-fall.
Following years of troubling silence, Bowie returned to the pop world with 2013's The Next Day. The goodwill surrounding his return could not overcome the album's overall sense of stasis, though. Conversely, on Blackstar, he embraces his status as a no-fucks icon, a sixty-eight-year-old with "nothing left to lose," as he sings on Lazarus. The album features a quartet of brand-new collaborators, led by the celebrated modern jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose repertoire includes hard bop as well as skittering Aphex Twin covers. Bowie's longtime studio wingman Tony Visconti is back as co-producer, bringing along with him some continuity and a sense of history.
Because as much as Blackstar shakes up our idea of what a David Bowie record can sound like, its blend of jazz, codes, brutality, drama, and alienation is not without precedent in his work. Bowie's first proper instrument was a saxophone, after all, and as a preteen he looked up to his older half-brother Terry Burns, who exposed him to John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Beat Generation ideals. The links connecting Bowie, his brother, and jazz feel significant. Burns suffered from schizophrenia throughout his life; he once tried to kill himself by jumping out of a mental hospital window and eventually committed suicide by putting himself in front of a train in 1985.
Perhaps this helps explain why Bowie has often used jazz and his saxophone not for finger-snapping pep but rather to hint at mystery and unease. It's there in his close collaborations with avant-jazz pianist Mike Garson, from 1973's Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?) all the way to 2003's Bring Me The Disco King. It's in his wild squawks on 1993's Jump They Say, an ode to Burns. But there is no greater example of the pathos that makes Bowie's saxophone breathe than on Subterraneans from 1977's Low, one of his most dour (and influential) outré moments. That song uncovered a mood of future nostalgia so lasting that it's difficult to imagine the existence of an act like Boards Of Canada without it. Completing the circle, Boards Of Canada were reportedly one of Bowie's inspirations for Blackstar. At this point, it is all but impossible for Bowie to escape himself, but that doesn't mean he won't try.
Thematically, Blackstar pushes on with the world-weary nihilism that has marked much of his work this century. "It's a head-spinning dichotomy of the lust for life against the finality of everything," he mused around the release of 2003's Reality. "It's those two things raging against each other... that produces these moments that feel like real truth." Those collisions come hard and strong throughout the album, unpredictable jazz solos and spirited vocals meeting timeless stories of blunt force and destruction. The rollicking 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore gets its name from a controversial seventeenth-century play in which a man has sex with his sister only to stab her in the heart in the middle of a kiss. Bowie's twist involves some canny gender-bending ("she punched me like a dude"), a robbery, and World War I, but the gist is the same - humans will always resort to a language of savagery when necessary, no matter where or when. See also: Girl Loves Me, which has Bowie yelping in the slang originated by A Clockwork Orange's ultra-violent droogs.
Though this mix of jazz, malice, and historical role-play is intoxicating, Blackstar becomes whole with its two-song denouement, which balances out the bruises and blood with a couple of salty tears. These are essentially classic David Bowie ballads, laments in which he lets his mask hang just enough for us to see the creases of skin behind it. Dollar Days is the confession of a restless soul who could not spend his golden years in a blissful British countryside even if he wanted to. "I'm dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again," he sings, the words doubling as a mantra for Blackstar and much of Bowie's career. Then, on I Can't Give Everything Away, he once again sounds like a frustrated Lazarus, stymied by a returning pulse. This tortured immortality is no gimmick: Bowie will live on long after the man has died. For now, though, he's making the most of his latest reawakening, adding to the myth while the myth is his to hold.