8 January 2016

David Bowie back on star form


In late 1969, just as Space Oddity became his first single to make the charts, David Bowie told the journalist George Tremlett that he didn’t plan to spend the rest of his life as a pop star. “A career like this would never satisfy me,” said the 22-year-old. “I shall be a millionaire by the time I’m 30 and I’ll spend the rest of my life doing other things.”

Plus ça ch-ch-change, plus c’est la meme chose, as Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr might have put it, if he’d waited 120 years and stuttered. Of course, the first thing everybody says about Bowie is that he constantly changes, but not all revolutions are chaotic and destructive. His revolutionary impact on popular culture has been, like the American Revolution, a happy and productive one.

As it turns out, Bowie was a millionaire by 30 and has spent the rest of his life doing plenty of other things. He’s been an actor (rather a good one, sometimes), been on the board of the magazine Modern Painters, and has had an incalculable influence on video and couture. Nonetheless, on his 69th birthday and the release of his 25th album ★ (Blackstar), he is still a pop star, too.

On the evidence of this record, as good as ever. His last album, The Next Day, released exactly three years ago and his first after a decade of silence, was full of lovely moments but either – as with the elegiac Where Are We Now? – gave the impression of revisiting old haunts or, in the follow-up single The Stars (Are Out Tonight), of gathering up loose material.

On a first listen, Blackstar is a more ambitious and successful record. There is no lurking sense, as there seemed to be with The Next Day, of wrapping things up, adding an epilogue – however confidently constructed – to the main body of work, or conducting a survey. Most of the songs are about death, in one way or another, but in an invigorating way; looking forwards, and with an unflinching gaze.

That’s in so far as one can tell from the lyrics, which are as opaque and beguiling as usual and will, as usual, keep the professional Bowie analysts busy for years. The cut-up techniques nicked from William Burroughs are still in evidence, as (on Girl Loves Me) is Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat, from A Clockwork Orange. On the final track, I Can’t Give Everything Away, “Skull designs upon my shoes/ Seeing more and feeling less/ Saying no but meaning yes/ This is all I ever meant” may be a summation of his artistic message; that it remains personal and deliberately ambiguous.

Or perhaps it’s a message to the age of Spotify and streaming, and a repudiation of Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Characteristically, Bowie – author, let’s not forget, of The Man Who Sold the World and, in 1997, the first recording artist to securitize his back catalogue by issuing bonds – saw all that coming before the end of the last century. Back in 1969, Bowie asked Tremlett for advice, and was told: “Get yourself a good lawyer, a good accountant and go into tax exile as soon as you can.”

And the music is just stonking. There are a lot of mildly abrasive horns, reminding us that little Davy Jones’s first musical excursions were as a sax player with a modern jazz combo. It’s not quite jazz, of course, but the influence is evident in the playful near-gospel in the middle of the title track, which may be revisiting the story of Major Tom from Space Oddity and Ashes to Ashes. There are nods to be-bop in ‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore and to Donald Fagen in Lazarus, which recalls Bowie’s other great sci-fi moment, as Thomas Newton in Nic Roeg’s film of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

But that track also features the kind of rock guitar riff that Bowie has often used (courtesy of Robert Fripp and Reeves Gabrel, amongst others) as a hook – reminiscent of Hearts Filthy Lesson, from 1995’s Outside. The reworking of Sue (Or In A Season of Crime) is also characterized by distorted guitar and busy, jungly percussion. For my money, Girl Loves Me is only the weak track, a rather clod-hopping assemblage of off-beats, but Dollar Days is a lush, standout ballad as lovely as any he’s ever written, with the jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin doing sterling work. “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me,” he sings, though adding “I’m dying to, I’m trying to.”

Above all, there are tunes! Blackstar isn’t bubblegum pop. It has a bit of dissonance and a few demanding moments by the standards of rock and pop – but then, grown-ups listen to jazz and contemporary orchestral music, too.

The melody of the verses of the final track, for example, quite consciously echoes Soul Love (1971) from Ziggy Stardust. As we all know, Ziggy died at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973. That’s probably just as well; he wouldn’t have aged gracefully.

Even more fortunately for us, his creator has. David Bowie is still the best and most original pop star on the planet (though there may occasionally be some doubt about which planet that is), but he’s also acting his age. He’s got a sensible haircut for a man of 69, though it looks as cool on him as it did on Samuel Beckett. Even his new straight teeth – though no doubt expensive implants, rather than dentures – look reassuringly false, as older people’s should. Like Leonard Cohen, Bowie has acquired a new, very welcome, don’t-give-a-damn burst of energy. And with this album, shows just how much most younger performers have to learn before they can dream of getting to this level.

Andrew McKie is a writer, painter, former Obituaries Editor of The Daily Telegraph, and failed saxophonist.