On JANUARY 8, 2016, his 69th birthday, David Bowie’s new album is released, exactly three years since Where Are We Now? appeared unannounced, a gift from a missing star, heralding his return from the wilderness with The Next Day.
Nostalgic and conciliatory, that album felt like a reward for those who had kept the faith. But was this one last hurrah before slipping into retirement? Or might he attempt another act of regeneration? 2014’s reverse-chronological collection Nothing Has Changed contained an auspicious portent: Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), seven minutes of melodramatic voice and big-band improv in collaboration with the Maria Schneider Orchestra.
Sue is re-recorded here with heightened vigour thanks to Bowie’s core personnel on this album, a smoking group of New York jazz musicians, alumni of Schneider (herself a pupil of Gil Evans), who under the direction of Bowie and co-producer Tony Visconti drive ★ to almighty levels of intensity. There’s little conciliation but plenty of bewilderment amid its opening 10 minutes, where the curtain rises on Bowie declaiming tremulously over a bed of syncopated electronic beats and Arabic drones. This is the title song, elements of which soundtrack television diamond heist drama The Last Panthers, though Bowie’s priestly incantation suggests an occult murder mystery: “On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile/Aaah…”
The claustrophobic mood heightens amid tumbling drums and skronking saxophone, until bright string notes herald a new dawn, and practically a new song. Now there’s sunshine in Bowie’s voice as he announces a leader’s passing – “Somebody took his place and bravely cried: I’m a blackstar!” – but his maniacal uttering of “blackstar” suggests trouble ahead.
“David Bowie isn’t so much back on the horse as riding bareback towards a cliff-edge.”
Bowie stirs a comedic stew of oppositional voices (“I’m not a gangster/I’m not a film star/I’m not a pop star”) as ominous strings muster. Almost imperceptibly the fearful mood of the first third reasserts itself, with Bowie now in a lower register to a straight beat, as if ‘Blackstar’’s dire consequences have been wrought. Burbling flute ushers the piece to a close. If heads are reeling, there is no respite: Bowie inhales twice to count-off ’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, with tenor sax monster Donny McCaslin exhorting drummer Mark Guiliana and bassist Tim Lefebvre to keep throttling the offbeat pummel until Bowie drops his priceless opening lyric: “Then she punched me like a dude.” Pianist Jason Lindner joins the hysteria, ratcheting needles further into the red, while Bowie slurs Jimmy Durante-style, and thrice whoops in excelsis.
Memories of the primitive home demo version on the Sue B-side are outmuscled amid the sheer escalatory thrill of a band tearing up the roadmap. Proceedings are reoriented towards the known Bowie by the subsequent Lazarus. A pensive guitar line signals a nakedly unaffected vocal – “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” – as the sax whirls in sympathy. Spare and emotive, there’s deep intrigue for forensically inclined rune-readers amid such lyrics as “By the time I got to New York/I was living like a king”, or “I’ll be free just like that blue bird”; Lazarus is also the title song of his new musical theatre adaptation of The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Halfway through and it’s breathtakingly apparent that David Bowie isn’t so much back on the horse as riding bareback towards a cliff-edge. The new recording of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) compensates for its reduced brass powerage by spiking the city-primeval rhythms with distressed noise, Ben Monder’s guitar suddenly prominent. Then, a supreme mood-shift: with its minimal robotic groove, Girl Loves Me sees the syncopation game upped by the singer himself as he deploys a variant of A Clockwork Orange’s nadsat vocabulary – “Hey cheena!” “Titty up, malchick say!” – plus choice use of the f-word.
In piercing voice, with DFA’s James Murphy on percussion, here’s Bowie reminding 21st century paranoid androids that he patented the form. Dollar Days restores the primacy of saxophone, albeit the instrument’s emollient aspect; in New York jazz argot, this is more Supper Club than Knitting Factory. Bathed in translucent piano and guitar, Bowie sounds wistful, but beware what lurks behind his velvet rope: “I’m dying to push their backs against the wall and fool them all again.”
The song’s confluence of stentorian guitar with McCaslin’s solo saxophone is overwhelming, segueing directly into the motorik pulse of the album’s final masterstroke. On a record that heretofore has barely referenced his past at all, Bowie exits with a song entitled I Can’t Give Everything Away, directly quoting the yearning harmonica from Low’s A New Career In A New Town. The lyric is rueful – “Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes” – the music ecstatic, and that’s even before Ben Monder’s transcendent liquid guitar solo spirits its patron, repeating the title refrain, to the horizon’s vanishing point and this brilliant, confounding record ebbs away.
★ somewhat recalls Station To Station in form – epic multipart title-track opener, seven songs in 41 minutes, odd atmospherics, rhythmic heft, tremendous singing – but otherwise there’s no obvious precedent in the Bowie canon. Real blood pumps in its grooves, unlike his ’90s experimental albums Outside and Earthling where so much energy was expended chasing the technological Zeitgeist.
David Bowie’s genius here has been in jettisoning his regular cohorts, whose safe pairs of hands might have taken these songs to a less visceral, more orthodox place, instead of this new frontier from which to contemplate innerspace. He can’t give everything away – but this will more than suffice.
Watch the video for the (kind of) title track…