“The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock and roll.” That’s how Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s longtime producer, describes the thought process behind Blackstar, Bowie’s new album. (The actual title, of course, is ?, but I’m not copy-pasting the damn star symbol all through this piece, sorry.) Over a five-decade career, Bowie has played around with genre more than maybe any other musician of his caliber. But he is still one of the foundational voices of rock and roll — not one of the first to do it, of course, but one of the voices to show new directions in which the music could drift. Every singer trying to find space for operatic theatricality in rock music is, in some sense or another, a Bowie acolyte; it doesn’t matter if they’re in of Montreal or in Evanescence. And every Bowie album is a rock album — including the soul album, the early-’80s dance-pop album, the drum-and-bass album, and all the various way-out experimental albums. So hearing that a Bowie album is trying to avoid rock and roll is like hearing that there’s a new Star Wars movie and it’s trying to avoid sci-fi. And somehow, Bowie did it. I’m not exactly sure what Blackstar is, but it doesn’t feel like a rock album.
In that same quote, Visconti mentions an unexpected precedent for what Bowie is doing here: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly: “We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.” Actually, what Bowie does on Blackstar is, in a lot of ways, remarkably similar to what Kendrick did on TPAB. He’s found ways to break the mold by bringing in a battalion of expressive jazz musicians to help him with these expansive meditations, these wild and all-over-the-place tracks that could be about everything and nothing. These albums don’t mute the voices of their primary vocalists, but they do find new ways to cast those voices, new contexts for them.
But Visconti is right, of course, that Blackstar sounds nothing like To Pimp A Butterfly (an album that actually has way more right to the title Blackstar). As awesome as it might be to hear what Bowie could do with Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, those aren’t the kind of jazz musicians he’s working with here. Instead, Bowie’s sidemen on Blackstar are New York guys like Donny McCaslin and Ben Monder. I know precisely jack shit about contemporary jazz, but the work these guys do on Blackstar isn’t the sort of bold expressionist honking you hear on TPAB. Instead, the Blackstar band broods cinematically, droning evocatively in the background and coming up with all these weird little countermelodies. They’re about churn, not explosiveness.
And Bowie is about churn, too. He’s not trying to write catchy vocal melodies this time, even though he showed on his last album, 2013’s The Next Day, that he’s still plenty capable of pulling that off. He does bring the occasional big hook, as on “Lazarus,” but those feel almost like accidents. Instead, he’s tripping down all these zoned operatic rabbit-holes. He sounds a lot like recent-vintage Scott Walker, whose last two decades of music have confounded the shit out of people like me, and I have to imagine that the influence is conscious and purposeful. (If nothing else, Blackstar puts Bowie on the very short list of artists, like Walker and Swans, who have done their most extreme work late in life.) Bowie doesn’t have Walker’s range; he’s always been a more limited pure singer than some of us have been willing to admit. But Bowie has presence in a way that Walker doesn’t. He’s incapable of singing anything that doesn’t sound like a grand, sweeping pronouncement, and that immortal charisma goes a long way toward selling the furthest-out moments on Blackstar.
You need that charisma for something like “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” a song that doesn’t even qualify as problematic because who in the fuck even knows what it’s about. Lyrically as well as musically, Bowie is in full-on elder-god enigma mode throughout the album. The title track is maybe possibly about ISIS or maybe not; nobody seems to agree. It does, however, contain maybe the best diss line Bowie has ever written: “You’re a flash in the pan / I’m the Great I Am.” Meanwhile, on “Lazarus,” Bowie sings about being so high he drops his phone in the toilet, an image so concrete and relatable that it feels deeply weird to hear this shadow-master singing it. (The exact line is “dropped my cell phone down below,” but we all know what that means.) Then, a verse later, it’s “By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king / I used up all my money / I was looking for your ass.” No further context means we’re forced to confront the question of whose ass he’s talking about.
But then, maybe it’s beside the point what the album is about. It could be a drawn-out look at aging and death, or it could merely be an old trickster relishing his power to confuse us. Blackstar isn’t one of Bowie’s best albums — he’s got too many great ones for us to consider giving it that distinction — but the mere fact that it exists feels like some kind of miracle. They sound nothing alike, and they’re not even close in quality, but Blackstar is a gooey, head-blown freakout on the level of the second half of Low. Some parts sound like the score to Lawrence Of Arabia, and other parts have brittle electro drums that presumably come from James Murphy. The album isn’t remotely self-referential, but “Sue (Or Is A Season Of Crime)” does bring back the drum-and-bass percussion of Bowie’s not-all-that-well-remembered mid-’90s era, even if a flesh-and-blood human is playing those rushing breakbeats this time. The whole album is messily expansive and compact at the same time. The songs are long and decentered and structure-free. But there are only seven of them, and the album is over in 40 minutes. Within those 40 minutes, there is so much happening. I’ve only been living with Blackstar a few days, but it’s already a grand puzzle, and I can’t imagine I’ll figure it out anytime soon. It’s a rare case: An artist giving us that instant “what the fuck?” reaction and then convincing us to stay around long enough to learn that there’s no answer.
Blackstar is out 1/8 on Columbia.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Hinds’ lovably ramshackle garage-popper Leave Me Alone.
• The-Dream’s Sam Cooke covers collection IAMSAM.
• Boosie Badazz’s guttural rap struggle-document In My Feelings (Goin’ Thru It).
• Villagers’ live-in-studio collection Where Have You Been All My Life?
• Cauldron’s trad-metal howler In Ruin.
• Krallice’s Hyperion EP.
• Jaill’s Whatever It Be cassette.