On May 25, 2004, David Bowie said goodbye to his past on the stage of Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
He and his band offered an inspired set that did indeed include recent fare, and did indeed come across as far more than a “hits retrospective” package. But Bowie was clearly saying goodbye to touring, to playing “Rebel Rebel” like he still meant it, to giving the people what he knew they wanted instead of what he felt they needed.
On Friday, his 69th birthday, Bowie released the much buzzed-about new album “Blackstar,” stylized as Ω. He presaged the release with no interviews, no public appearances, and no promise of promotional activities of any sort, including a tour. If the surprise arrival of 2013’s “The Next Day” – again, on his birthday – made it clear Bowie had nothing to say beyond the music, “Blackstar” drives the point home with even further finality.
It’s one of Bowie’s most ambitious, and therefore best, albums. It’s also abundantly weird. And weird is good. Weird has served Bowie incredibly well over the years.
Bowie’s best music has always been infused with vague feelings of terror and hints of existential horror. “Blackstar” is both terror-stricken and horrible in the most fascinating manner. This is not feel-good music: One assumes Bowie is aware that you can get that elsewhere, in abundance. Instead, “Blackstar” trades in bravery, of the sort that involves staring into the abyss, and risking failure by demanding excellence of a new and adventurous variety.
In 2014, Bowie popped into the 55 Bar, a jazz haunt in Manhattan’s West Village, to hear the genre-bending jazz outfit the Donny McCaslin Quartet. He was looking for something new, a conceptual and musical framework within which to stretch a canvas and paint what would turn out to be a masterpiece. He found it in saxophonist McCaslin’s band, whose members Jason Lindner (keys), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and Mark Guiliana (drums), engage in a groove-centered marriage of improvisation and ensemble motifs that the New York Times has properly called “both wild and cogent.”
Bowie and longtime producer Tony Visconti enlisted the quartet, hoping to marry their forward-looking fire to the influence of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” an album both had been listening to with pointed interest. News of as much made the rounds, and in some quarters, was taken quite literally, interpreted as proof that Bowie would be releasing a hip-hop album with jazz overtones. Wrong.
“Blackstar” commences with its title tune, a nearly 10-minute piece that moves unhurriedly through a graceful, unsettling harmonic progression set to a drum figure that sounds like it’s fighting itself, as Bowie intones in stately near-falsetto – think Scott Walker tackling more recent Radiohead – and McCaslin interjects angular, sometimes jarring sax. Some 4 minutes in, the tune collapses upon itself and is reborn as a purposeful piece of avant-pop that moves toward a stirring coda. You could lift the needle out of the groove here, and you’d already have heard some of the most adventurous “pop” likely to be released this year.
But Bowie and company are just getting started. Of course they are.
“’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” suggests R&B, and moves at a good clip, but its multilayered production – multiple Bowies singing in ghostly harmony in one corner of the mix, McCaslin offering side commentary in another, chords changing in unexpected places and lending tension – provides continuity with the album’s title song.
“Lazarus” begins with a funereal ambient guitar and drum duet, before LeFebvre’s strident bass line enters, and McCaslin’s mournful sax harmonies herald the arrival of one of the most dramatic and eloquent vocal performances of Bowie’s career.
“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” moves with sinister intent, its stridency bolstered by taut, staccato electric guitars, Bowie in slightly manic narrator mode, employing his broad vibrato to push along a melody that floats above the tumult crafted by the McCaslin Quartet.
“Dollar Days” is ostensibly a ballad, but again, the arrangement, the pacing, the shifts in tempo and timbre, and Bowie’s always unusual but always appropriate phrasing make this something else – “art rock” is what we call it when we don’t really know the name for it, and that will have to do here.
What’s so consistently impressive about all of this is the freshness and sense of vitality running through the music. Bowie is singing as well as ever – better, in some ways, so masterful has he become at blending gravitas and playfulness, poignancy and absurdity, the sacred and the profane, after nearly 50 years of doing so. In the McCaslin Quartet – and as ever, in producer Visconti – Bowie found able men to ride the wild river of his imagination alongside. “Blackstar” should not be as towering an accomplishment as “Station To Station,” “Low,” “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” or “Heroes,” albums Bowie made as a much younger man. And yet, it is.
Dramatic, stunning, disquieting, soulful, consistently adventurous, and eminently musical – “Blackstar” ranks with Bowie’s very finest efforts. It’s possible that there will be a better “pop,” or “rock,” or whatever-it-needs-to-be-called album released this year. But it’s not likely.