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David Bowie, ‘Blackstar': Album Review

Columbia Records
Columbia Records

Producer Tony Visconti has said that David Bowie‘s 25th album, Blackstar, is a reaction to 2013’s The Next Day, which the longtime collaborators felt was a bit too rooted in the artist’s classic rock ‘n’ roll style. In other words, we were told to expect less Ziggy, more Low.

But in a career that’s steered off-course more than once over the past 45 years, and often in groundbreaking and exciting ways, Blackstar isn’t so much an anti-rock ‘n’ roll album as it is a continuation on the genre-bending, experimental path Bowie has charted more consistently and more successfully than almost any of his peers.

Blackstar is a less accessible record than The Next Day, but it’s not the culture shock of sounds that greeted fans when the Berlin Trilogy arrived in the late ’70s. Among the album’s seven songs are re-recorded versions of two standout tracks that originally surfaced in 2014 as part of a compilation (“Sue [Or in a Season of Crime]“) and as the B-side of a single (“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore“); the title track to the off-Broadway musical Lazarus, which Bowie co-wrote, is also here. Through it all, saxophonist Donny McCaslin adds a skittering jazz pulse, filling Blackstar with a sense of end-of-the-world anxiety that doubles as underground noir.

No doubt that it’s an arty project – the opening title track runs 10 minutes and shakes off labels as it drifts from one musical playground to another with a restlessness that mirrors its creator’s. But Blackstar is deeper than just another one of Bowie’s art projects. At 68, few if any of his contemporaries are making music as challenging or as significant as this. Like the Berlin Trilogy, Blackstar defies convention and expectation as it fearlessly stitches together components of jazz, hip-hop, opera, noise and electronic music.

There’s a rock ‘n’ roll element bubbling beneath the surface of a handful of tracks, like in the closing “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” but it’s the blurry soundscapes of “Blackstar,” the dread-soaked “Lazarus” and the hyperkinetic “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” that stick with you and invite repeated listens. It’s a late-night record that isn’t afraid to show itself in daylight; the occasional detours from sound and vision are bold ventures into worlds that Bowie has visited, in some shape or form, before, but it’s no retread.

The Next Day came as a surprise comeback after a 10-year break; Blackstar is an even more assured album, a work of art (emphasis on that last word) that persuasively posits Bowie as one of the very few innovators who’s still making better records than his many disciples.

LCD Soundsystem‘s James Murphy shows up on a couple tracks, the remnants of a more extensive collaboration that was eventually scuttled, and co-producer Visconti applies the same sympathetic ear he’s been lending since the ’70s. But this is unmistakably Bowie’s album, a record of uncompromising confrontations and abrasive side notes. It’s not easy, but music this disorienting and mesmerizing rarely is.

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