Uncut JANUARY 2016 - by Michael Bonner


Jazz metal! Musical theatre! Supernatural transformations! Welcome to Bowie's (latest) Year Zero.

When you've come back from the dead, as David Bowie effectively did with his surprise 2013 album, The Next Day, what exactly do you do for an encore? The sudden appearance of Where Are We Now? on the morning of January 8 - his sixty-sixth birthday - was a coup de théâtre even by the standards of an artist with a long history of dramatic entrances. The problem is, though, that when you've pulled off such an audacious stunt once - one to rival that of Lazarus, you could say - what do you do on future birthdays? "The future," as Bowie told NME in 1973, "is very open-ended, actually."

The clues may have been planted in the last track on The Next Day, Heat: a sinister melodrama driven by eerie violin howls and eldritch electronic effects that suggested Bowie was girding himself to do the full Scott Walker. Blackstar (or, indeed, ), Bowie's twenty-fifth studio album, and one that will be serendipitously released on his sixty-ninth birthday, is not quite his Tilt, but it does represent yet another marvellous reinvention for Bowie. This time, working in cahoots with a brand new band, Bowie has concocted an album that is wide-ranging in scope and, critically, experimental intone.

After the relatively straightforward The Next Day, it is as if Bowie now feels free to indulge his more avant-garde impulses. There are moments of challenging sonic exploration and heavy jazz-metal jams alongside a handful of astonishingly beautiful songs that find Bowie lighting up the room with some of his finest soul singing in decades. Blackstar makes reference to bluebirds, prodigal sons and heavenly bodies. One song repeatedly inquires of the listener, "Where the fuck did Monday go?" Welcome then to Blackstar - Bowie's latest creative Year Zero.

The roots of the album lie in the 2014 Record Store Day single Bowie recorded with the Maria Schneider Orchestra - Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) (you can also find it on the Nothing Has Changed compilation, released in November 2014). A seven-minute post-modern jazz experiment, the song found Bowie operating in an unfamiliar idiom with a new set of musicians drawn from New York's vibrant contemporary jazz scene. Clearly inspired by these sessions, Bowie has conscripted Sue... saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose muscular reed-playing dominates Blackstar, to act as band leader. The forty-nine-year-old Berklee graduate, with ten albums of his own under his belt, fills out the Blackstar line-up with his own players: keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, percussionist Mark Guiliana and guitarist Ben Monder.

Bowie has never publicly busied himself much with jazz - aside from Mike Garson's virtuoso piano runs on Lady Grinning Soul, say - and his collaborations with McCaslin's quartet feel less about getting in touch with his inner Miles and more a means to explore new ideas. These are not just artistic decisions so much as psychological ones. The Next Day brimmed with stylistic echoes of his previous records and was mostly staffed by familiar faces - Gerry Leonard, Sterling Campell, Zachary Alford, Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey. Producer Tony Visconti remains for Blackstar, but the onus is on the new; if Bowie now wants to pursue a fresh musical agenda, surely this is best done in the genial company of new companions?

As if to underscore these intentions, Bowie deliberately front-loads Blackstar with two of its most outré tracks: Blackstar and 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore. They're very different songs - the former is a mind-bogglingly audacious ambient-prog-electronic-soul marathon lasting just shy of ten minutes, the latter a pounding skronkathon - but both act as defiant and divisive statements, as a bold introduction to the album's weird logistics. Blackstar has seven tracks in total, two of which have already been out (albeit in different versions) while another is pegged to Bowie's off-Broadway musical, Lazarus. It isn't the first time one of his albums has been assembled from other sources: Diamond Dogs, for example, was salvaged from an ambitious plan to stage George Orwell's 1984 as a musical; Heathen was stitched together from cover versions, new material and songs from his thwarted Toy venture.

The apparent patchwork provenance, though, makes it hard to discern overall themes from Blackstar. The violence and anger of The Next Day presented a Bowie actively engaged with the oppressive forces at work in a world to which he returned after a decade-long absence. Here, there is a less obvious thematic thread. The songs are full of narrators and characters offering a jumble of perspectives. One recounts an act of supernatural transformation: "Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose to leave him and stepped aside". Another negotiates a series of violent episodes: "Man, she punched me like a dude / Hold your mad hands, I cried". A third seems to have committed murder: "I pushed you down beneath the weeds / Endless faith in hopeless deeds". And then there is Lazarus, one of the four new songs Bowie has written for his off-Broadway musical - based on Walter Tevis' original novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth - but the only one to figure on Blackstar (as far as we know). Was Bowie working on both projects simultaneously and, if so, how did one feed into the other? Is he tacitly using Lazarus to connect The Man Who Fell To Earth to Blackstar? Or is Lazarus simply the latest in a celebrated line of starmen to appear in Bowie's songs?

Perhaps Blackstar is unified by sound more than message. After the crunchy riffs of The Next Day, Blackstar has a more nuanced approach. Crucially, there is only one guitar solo on the album - a harsh, Fripp-like report across the album's otherwise meditative closer, I Can't Give Everything Away. For the most part, Bowie lets McCaslin and his band lead the way. On Blackstar's reworking of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime, for instance, the free-jazz textures of the original are replaced by a dense industrial thrum. It resembles a kind of jazz/metal hybrid - Bowie's Lulu moment, perhaps? - as McCaslin drives his band towards a thrillingly discordant crescendo.

Of course, it's not a totally new Bowie that emerges from all this. There are subtle resonances of his previous personae throughout the album. The cryptic, fragmented lyrics of Girl Loves Me ("Popo blind to the Polly in the hole by Friday") seem to have been created with cut-up techniques similar to the ones he used on Diamond Dogs and later revisited via a computer program for Outside. Blackstar itself shares a dark theatrical atmosphere with Aladdin Sane while the song's sudden and transfixing detour into soul - with McCaslin's sax rolling and swooping in the background - recalls the euphoric brass swells on Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) from Diamond Dogs.

Lazarus - which will be sung from the point of view of the musical's resident alien, Newton - glides along with the same sumptuous, melancholic grace as Heathen's grand centrepiece, Slip Away. And while Blackstar and 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore feature some Scott Walker-ish mannerisms, Bowie's warm, soulful timbre on I Can't Give Everything Away echoes Word On A Wing or perhaps a less operatic take on Wild Is The Wind.

Bowie elects to close Blackstar with two relatively straightforward songs. They are a strong reminder, perhaps, that despite giving free rein to his experimental tendencies, he remains very capable of classic songcraft. Both vocals, delivered close to the microphone to convey a sense of intimacy, find Bowie in reflective mood. On Dollar Days he sings wistfully about "the English evergreens" over his own leisurely paced acoustic playing. I Can't Give Everything Away, meanwhile, is borne along on soft synth washes and fleeting snatches of harmonica. An elegant, relaxed and rather touching end.

When he chose to return to music in 2013, David Bowie made his past work for him on The Next Day; a strategic move, perhaps, to help shore up his comeback and to remind a mass audience of his consistent strengths. What could have been read at the time, however, as a dignified coda to an extraordinary career now looks more like a kind of palette cleanser before new adventures. This is what Blackstar feels like: the beginning of a new Bowie phase, one that may turn out to be as uncompromising and creatively volatile as anything that has preceded it. There's an argument that drawing on tag-lines from nearly forty years ago is somewhat against the spirit of Blackstar. Nevertheless, one of the advertising slogans used to promote "Heroes" back in 1977 seems just as apposite today. "Tomorrow," it read, "belongs to those who can hear it coming."

TRACKLIST Blackstar / 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore / Lazarus / Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime / Girl Loves Me / Dollar Days / I Can't give Everything Away


The albums that signpost the way to Bowie's latest

DAVID BOWIE 1. Outside [1995] - While there are elements of Bowie's classic era on Blackstar - from Aladdin Sane to Diamond Dogs - Outside, which saw Bowie and co-producer Eno fold elements of rock and electronica into their palette, foreshadows the new album's bold engagement with jazz and dissonance. I'm Deranged would fit well on Blackstar.

DAVID BOWIE The Next Day - Although a more conventional 'rock' album than Blackstar, you can find the seeds of the latter's wild experimentation in If You Can See Me - a breathless track that can barely keep up with its own contorted time signature - and Heat, whose dolorous tone is echoed on the opening section of Blackstar's title track.

DONNY MCCASLIN Casting for Gravity [2012] - The record that turned Bowie on to his latest set of collaborators. McCaslin's ninth studio album also features Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre and Mark Guiliana. The influence here is both jazz fusion - Weather Report - and electronica (the album features a cover of the Boards Of Canada track Alpha And Omega).


DONNY MCCASLIN: Saxophone, flute, woodwind - Berklee graduate, has played with Gil Evans and fusion pioneer Gary Burton, as well as Maria Schneider and others. Two-times Grammy nominee, for Best Instrumental Jazz Solo. Most recent album, Fast Future, was released on Greenleaf Music earlier this year.

JASON LINDNER: Piano, Wurlitzer, keyboards - LaGuardia graduate, veteran of several big bands, trios, quartets and electric groups. First recorded with McCaslin on 2012's Casting for Gravity, then Fast Future.

TIM LEFEBVRE: Bass - Wide-ranging credits include David Holmes and Jamie Cullum alongside stints on Late Night With David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. He also plays in Tedeschi Trucks Band.

MARK GUILIANA: Drums, percussion - Leader of his own Beat Music, whose line-up includes Lefebvre, and participant in Now Vs Now with Lindner. Played on three albums with McCaslin, beginning with 2011's Perpetual Motion.

BEN MONDER: Guitar - Veteran of ten albums of his own, Monder has also worked with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and first recorded with McCaslin on 2007's In Pursuit.

JAMES MURPHY: Percussion - Former LCD Soundsystem leader. Remixed The Next Day track Love Is Lost. Produced Arcade Fire's Reflektor, to which Bowie contributed backing vocals.