The Lead Review: Jeremy Allen On David Bowie's ★
, January 11th, 2016 21:30
As David Bowie releases his twenty-sixth studio album on his 69th birthday today, Jeremy Allen maps out its case as "the all-singing, all-dancing Second Coming"
When the first 30-second teasers for ★ (Blackstar) arrived last October, I tried to put a brave face on, but deep down I wondered if the world needed another Scott Walker. You might find this unforgivable, but as a disciple of the four Scotts and 'Til The Band Comes In, I can't be entirely alone in wondering on occasion if the world needs the one it's got. It's a churlish reaction to a singer breaking all sorts of artistic boundaries in the present, but there's still a part of me that wants Walker to eschew the cold monastic chanting and a part that wants to hear that familiar croon live, reworking - but not too much - old favourites. It's a problem that has led to some serious soul-searching and self-flagellation.
Anyway, a contemporaneous other-Walker would surely be a pointless fandango for Bowie, in spite of Mr Engel's influence throughout his career, but I still worried. I needn't have. The Brixton-born superstar's almost preternatural instinct to transmogrify in all the right places has ensured such missteps have been rare, especially during twelve golden years from 1971 to 1983. That knack of being ahead of the game seems to have returned in abundance on his 26th studio album, but please don't call it a reinvention. Bowie has refuted the oft attributed appendage to his comings and goings, stressing there has always been a strong thematic progression throughout his oeuvre. The immutable "chameleonic" cliché he puts down to lazy journalism too:
"The chameleon is always trying to blend into his surroundings," he said in 2003, "and I don't think that's exactly what I'm known for."
My fears about a concomitant Scott clone were thankfully almost entirely unfounded. The big reveal - a creepy video of the title track on Sky Atlantic in November - would set my jaw agape in wonder. Somehow Bowie and producer Tony Visconti pull elements of Walker, jazztronica, manual beats, Aleister Crowley, Bartók, arabesque ululations, Friedrich Nietzsche and the visual menace of Chris Cunningham all together, and they make a 10-minute melange that is both defiantly avant garde and peculiarly pleasing to the ear and eye all at the same time. One listens to 'Blackstar' and all of a sudden The Next Day feels like a solid but safe stepping stone to something truly important; the sense of anticipation has been almost tangible in my household ever since. ★ in no way disappoints. Forgive me David (and Scott) for I have blasphemed.
Speaking of blasphemy, religion has always been a theme in Bowie's work, from reciting the Lord's Prayer at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert to lyrics like: "The gods forgot that they made me / So I forget them, too / I dance among their shadows / I play among their graves" on 'Seven', or "See my life in a comic / Like the way they did the Bible", from 'New Killer Star'. There's a lyric about religion on every album if you go looking for it, and he's toyed with among other things Tibetan Buddhism, mysticism and Thelema, while his obsession with Nietzsche's philosophy is no secret (he also waggishly claims to have dabbled in Satanism, Christianity and pottery).
On ★, the theme of religion and its influence on geopolitical events is pervasive. It's always dicey interpreting Bowie's lyrics and trying to attribute meaning to the abstract, but saxophonist Donny Mccaslin's slip about the title track being about Daesh rings true. The chilling sacrificial elements in the villa of Ormen (Ormen is actually a village in Norway and the name means serpent in Norwegian) and the celestial promise of immortality in the midsection ("I'm not a pop star… I'm a Blackstar… I'm not a gangstar...") and mention of "flash in the pan" and "the Great I Am" all seem to indicate oblique references to covering oneself in some skewed, fucked-up glory. There's also a sonic mix of the shamanistic and the modern, a paradox that also is very much the mark of the murderous wahhabist terrorist cult.
''Tis A Pity She Was A Whore' - which references the 17th century John Ford play (almost) of the same name, could well be a reference to Babylon, or modern day Iraq, and the video - featuring a series of precision bombings through infrared - seems to support this. Equally it could be about something else entirely. Bowie's lyrics leave enough scope for a myriad of interpretations, and I'm not about to fight it out on songmeanings.com with some belacose keyboard warriors. The singer is extremely well read, and his magpie instincts even involve mashing various ideas together in acts of deliberate obscurantism to bamboozle his own fans.
'Tis A Pity…' and 'Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)' are certainly more straightforward than their earlier counterparts, though that's not saying much. When the pair of songs were released at the end of 2014, they were as sonically shocking as the aforementioned Ford play, which all those centuries ago tackled - among other things - incest. The new 'Sue…' rattles along within the parametres of a more conventional beat, even if both songs are still strewn with wild, experimental, vertiginous jazz parpings, often with clarinets attacking saxes and vice versa over alacritous percussion. Between Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and now Dave, the genre hasn't been in such rude health for decades, albeit tangled up in some seriously cerebral hip hop experimentation. Rude is the operative word too; it kicks you in the face in the way punk was always meant to.
More restrained, at least at the beginning, is 'Lazarus', which fittingly ambles along like a phaser-heavy goth 'Time Will Crawl' (the chord sequence is similar), before coming alive at the end like the titular Biblical character awakened by Jesus. 'Girl Loves Me' seems to channel Melt-era Peter Gabriel, complete with those yelped phrases at the end of sentences that the former Genesis man does so irresistibly - it's a stand out commercially, and it's perhaps a surprise it didn't get released as a taster considering what did, but then Bowie always was a contrary soul.
'Dollar Days' contains the lyric, "I'm dying to push their backs against the grain / and fool them all again and again", though it's the most conventional offering here. It's not quite a ballad, like 'Where Are We Now?', but it has a similar vibe, at least until the noodly outro and flanged drum/dream sequence that fades out at the death. It's a feature of most of the songs that rather than allow them to fester, Bowie nearly always lets in his musicians towards the conclusion and gives them carte blanche to go where they want in a kind of orchestrated but very free version of madness. Finally 'I Can't Give Everything Away' settles into a mid-80s groove and is reminiscent of a tune such as 'This Is Not America'. Indeed the only disappointment is that the songs we hitherto hadn't heard are less experimental than the ones we had, though that's a tiny criticism of an album that could never be accused of being anything but leftfield.
Whether or not Bowie has recorded the fabled "best album since Scary Monsters…" here is not a moot question; the premise is ill-conceived. To put to rest a scandalous myth that has perpetuated over the years, Let's Dance is the best album since Scary Monsters… by sheer dint of it being a better album than its predecessor (they're both amazing by the way). The former has the sporadic genius of Robert Fripp, the latter has Nile Rodgers and eight imperious pop bangers to boot. What's not to love in both cases? The recent renaissance of Rodgers has helped counter this snobby assertion, but has still not put it to bed just yet.
After Let's Dance comes Bowie's fallow period, with Tonight, Never Let Me Down and the two Tin Machine albums filed under 'must try harder' ("The minute you know you're on safe ground, you're dead," said Bowie in 1976 almost anticipating 1986. "You're finished. It's over. The last thing I want is to be established").
In the 90s Bowie came out fighting, with Black Tie, White Noise and the Buddha Of Suburbia soundtrack proving he still had tunes in him. Outside was perhaps his most outre offering until now, but it was difficult to truly love, while Earthling - which received mixed reviews at the time - has fared rather better, sounding surprisingly contemporary on a revisit. 'Hours...' was a little boring, Heathen is overrated and Reality is very underrated if perhaps a little safe, and then things go quiet for a while. It's hard to imagine now, but in 2003, David Bowie could hardly get himself arrested. To witness the mania that greeted a museum exhibition in his honour 10 years on was bizarre to behold for anyone who has followed his career closely; not being able to get in until it turned up in Paris was excruciating for yours truly as well.
The Next Day elicited the usual cries of best album since time immemorial on its release in 2013, but ★ reveals it to be a neoteric John the Baptist preparing the way for the all-singing, all-dancing Second Coming. Whether or not this is the best thing since Let's Dance (you're with me on this now aren't you?) is too early to say, but by God is it a cohesive collection that contains the same inscrutable attention to detail that a latter Scott Walker album surely would. And rejoice, because David Bowie hasn't sounded this relevant in an age. ★ marks the bold and rejuvenated beginnings of a second or maybe third wind for an artist who turns 69 today. Happy birthday, David Bowie.