Gramophone JANUARY 21, 2016 - by Philip Clark


Philip Clark reflects on Bowie's final album and its engagement with free jazz and the avant-garde.

This article was already underway - at least in what Tony Hancock called "the lying in bed thinking about it stage" - when the news was announced on January 10 that David Bowie had died two days after his sixty-ninth birthday; and I'm pleased I was able to experience his new album with innocent ears - before the sad truth emerged that Bowie had consciously designed Blackstar as his farewell to a life well lived: as his own Four Last Songs.

I had wanted to write about Blackstar because I was struck both by its melodic wizardry and the integrity of its construction. Readers of a magazine fixated on good composition will surely find Bowie's stringently organised record, where not a single note is wasted, where seeds implanted into the opening song provide a melodic and harmonic gene pool from which much of the rest of the album draws, of interest. But then the man who fell to earth ascends abruptly towards the heavens, and everyone from Stooges front-man Iggy Pop to Tory front-man David Cameron is called upon to give an opinion. And suddenly disentangling Bowie the musician, who was minded to conceive albums with a degree of micro-organisation that could put Anton Webern to shame, from David Bowie the supreme cultural icon becomes an ever greater stretch.

Musically and conceptually, almost as soon as Bowie begins creating albums in the late 1960s, he is aspiring to a worldview grander than merely puffing up his latest single on Top of the Pops (at which he excels anyway). Early period albums like The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (all released between 1970 and '72) play with the classic album form, until a dizzying apotheosis is reached with Ziggy Stardust which, in one fell swoop, teases with pop identity (Ziggy is Bowie's alter ago, a rock star on loan from another universe), sexual identity (Ziggy is a sexually alluring, androgynous creature, a metaphor for Bowie's own rampant bisexuality) and musical identity (this is tone-poem pop, the album functioning as a smart through-composed narrative.)

By the time Bowie relocated to Berlin at the end of 1976 Ziggy had been killed off, on an apparent mid-concert whim in '73 without Bowie telling his soon-to-be unemployed musicians first; meanwhile his cocaine habit had hit unsustainable levels and Berlin, a definite sin-city when it came to the distribution of drugs, was where Bowie would find himself again - in a place where song and gender-bending cabaret was hard-wired into the cultural fabric.

Time now for new perspectives and the three albums Bowie completed in the city - Low, "Heroes" and Lodger, collectively known as 'The Berlin Trilogy' - amounted to a blanket reinvention of his relationship to the recorded artefact. The desolate electronic soundscaping characteristic of Krautrock - those 1970s German synth-heavy groups like Can, Kraftwerk and Neu! - bled inside the textural grain of Bowie's grooves. Can bass guitarist Holger Czukay had studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen himself, and dealing with Krautrock meant grappling with the whole history of German electronic modern composition. Bowie's deep appreciation of free jazz (which asserts itself again in Blackstar) becomes apparent in the Ornette Coleman-tinged cameo his saxophone playing makes in "Heroes"; and, just as Bowie arrives in Berlin, Steve Reich and His Musicians turn up to give a performance of Music For 18 Musicians which leaves Bowie transfixed.

The wonder of the 'Berlin Trilogy' is how much musical experience Bowie - working with his producer Tony Visconti and ideas-man Brian Eno - manages to weave inside relatively concise forty-minute structures. "Heroes" might be graced with a hit single - its title track, anthemic enough to be pumped through the Olympic Stadium during the 2012 opening ceremony, as the Queen and James Bond tumbled out of a helicopter - but, like Low, there comes a point where song-forms collapse into extended stretches of wordless, abstract electronica - an unlikely place for a pop album to end up.

V-2 Schneider, the first track on the B-side of "Heroes", signals this point of structural transformation as Bowie's voice is processed electronically, a sound reminiscent of Kraftwerk's fixation on the vocoder voice synthesiser. In Sense Of Doubt the human voice gets abandoned altogether. Anchored by a reverb-encrusted four-note descending chromatic piano motif, synth chord sequences attempt to find their form before crumbling back into the electronic abyss. And then "Heroes"Neuköln' pushes further, dicing sound into spectral harmonic waves.

With its looped arpeggios and mallet percussion instrumentation, Weeping Wall, from Low, is a valentine to American minimalism. When Philip Glass, two decades later, returns the favour with his Low and Heroes symphonies - essentially composed embellishments of Bowie's material for full symphony orchestra - "Heroes" (the song) is turned into a deadening chorale while the mood of electro-dystopia that characterises Sense Of Doubt is needlessly lightened with prim orchestration primer ordinariness, and the very specific aims of Bowie's compositional ideals become clear. (In 1976, when Bowie raised his hand in a gesture that looked suspiciously like a Nazi salute - an allegation he strenuously denied and blamed on a cocaine high - another connection with modern composition was forged. It was Cornelius Cardew, seconded by the free improviser Maggie Nicols, who reported Bowie to the Musicians' Union, demanding his membership be terminated.)

All of which returns us to the wonder that is Blackstar. Bowie's compositional ambition becomes clear from the get-go. His opening track is constructed from two songs that Bowie decrees can coexist. Spluttering into an uncertain existence, the track finds direction only once Bowie's voice enters, underpinned by a portentous, dislocating snare drum rhythm that invokes Jelly Roll Morton's 'Spanish tinge'. Morton was a man obsessed with voodoo and the occult, and whatever the title Blackstar really signifies - and guesses have ranged from a reference to the particular type of cancer lesion from which Bowie was suffering and/or to ISIS - we hear the world turning on its dark side. Don't be fooled by the apparent simple diatonicism of Bowie's opening phrase. Harmonic instability takes hold as a soaring tritone leap travels Bowie deeper and deeper towards chromatic, enharmonic borderlands. Resolutions hinted at are never fulfilled.

Alongside electronics and rockist paraphernalia saxophonist Donny McCaslin's jazz group is embedded into the record's structural core, with Bowie cleverly harnessing the energy and spirit of jazz while ditching explicit stylistic reference points. McCaskin solos over the chord changes; but then the structure dissolves into a free stream of consciousness. Reminiscent of Sense Of Doubt, distorted voices and synth harmonies crack and shatter as an electronically warped echo of Bowie's voice begins to reiterate a haunted mantra: "I'm a blackstar'. As the mantra continues - and migrates into 'I'm not a gangster, I'm not a film star, I'm not a pop star, I'm a blackstar" - we're already in the midst of entirely fresh material - a new, brighter song which subsequently gets dragged back towards the harmonic darkness of opening material, that is repeated before the form disintegrates towards instrumental debris.

Girl Loves Me works the chromatic freefall of Bowie's voice against a relentlessly static funk bass line, while Dollar Days is a vision of an England that Bowie will surely never see again, off-pastoral harmony telling the story as keenly as his lyrics. And that message was implanted within the opening notes. Blackstar, perched between this life and inevitable absence, between harmonic certainty and instability, will obsess over tension between formal control and structural freedom - one that has been carefully composed, Bowie once again implanting ideas and techniques more often associated with avant-garde thought into a pop album released on a mainstream label, without bothering to point out where the joins are.