Stack JANUARY 2016 - by Graham Reid


Graham Reid considers David Bowie's new album and his recent past.

Although we've had almost half a century of the unexpected from David Bowie, few, if any, could have anticipated his remarkable new album, , AKA Blackstar. It bears no resemblance to its brittle and abrasive predecessor of three years ago, The Next Day, and there's scant reference to anything in his vast catalogue of diversity. Longtime Bowiephiles might mutter, "Hmmm, Outside perhaps?" or "That bit sounds like something off Black Tie White Noise", but mostly they're kidding themselves.

Perhaps its closest reference point might be the stuttering electro-shivers of FKA Twigs, except Bowie is more musically ambitious and deploys jazz musicians to paint in the widescreen subterranean bass and astonishing drum work from players who shift emphasis and tempo. At times it's as if he's called up the spirits of performers like Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, but brought in an academy-trained drum'n'bass crew and taken them on a left turn into art music.

Three of the seven songs have appeared previously: the shapeshifting ten-minute title track which opens the album (helluva challenge to start with) moves from a claustrophobic mood over skittering drums and onward through languid sax. The second, Sue (Or In a Season of Crime), was on the 2014 collection Nothing Has Changed, however this new, more aggressive version has splinters of guitar piercing it. The third is 'Tis a Pity She's A Whore, which originally appeared as the B-side to the twelve-inch release of Sue, however it has also been re-recorded for Blackstar.

But neither prepare you for the breathtaking scope of Bowie's musical and lyrical vision here. The extraordinary final song I Can't Give Everything Away (with a tellingly lengthy pause before the final word) sounds the closest to anything he's done previously - a little of his Wild Is the Wind vocal from Station To Station as filtered through a melody akin to Psychedelic Furs' Sister Europe - but in truth this is all new territory.

A standout is Lazarus (released as a single in December and the title piece of his forthcoming theatre production of The Man Who Fell To Earth) where he adopts his most intimate voice, like a tone poem of increasing desperation.

And what's he on about on Blackstar? Themes of alienation, religion and fear abound, but close reading isn't rewarding because it sounds like he's using the cut-up method. In Lazarus you may decipher references to himself, his brother who committed suicide in '85, and/or John Lennon. Or not.

Blackstar isn't for those who partied to Let's Dance, and maybe not even those who immersed themselves in the sonic textures of Low/""Heroes" but it's quite remarkable, and because it exists outside the wide musical landscape he previously staked out, it drives you to look deeply into his last twenty years for hints that Blackstar might be on the horizon.

There's nothing, but a search allows a rediscovery of the underrated 1. Outside (1995) with Brian Eno which - the first of an incomplete conceptual series - sprung The Heart's Filthy Lesson and Hallo Spaceboy (remixed by the Pet Shop Boys). Over disconcerting sonic beds from n Machine guitarist Reeves Gabriel, jazz drummer Joey Barron and others, Bowie declaims a cyberworld in decline.

The downward spiral went unfinished because for his next by album, Earthling (1997), he embraced drum'n'bass, jungle and industrial sounds. It remains one of his most interesting albums (with Trent Reznor on hand for I'm Afraid Of Americans) but went past most people who only remember the distressed Union Jack(et) he wore on the cover. When Hours (1999) rolled around, many former fans had moved on (fair enough, it wasn't that good), so most missed the excellent Heathen (2002) where he covered Neil Young's I've Been Waiting For You and had a near-hit with the fascinating and melancholy Everyone Says "Hi"

That album and the patchy Reality (2003) reunited him with producer Tony Visconti, who got the call for The Next Day which appeared unannounced in 2013, and now the exceptional Blackstar.

At sixty-nine, David Bowie is still delivering the unexpected and in that regard "nothing has changed".

But with Blackstar, everything has changed.