So, week two and David Bowie’s swansong, Black Star. It would be more or less exactly a year ago that I read Alexis Petridis’ review in the Guardian and been intrigued enough to give it a listen on Spotify. And then two days later, he died, the first of what seemed like a torrent of celebrity deaths last year (I remember being sat in a bar a few weeks later listening to a friend singing The Laughing Gnome in the voice of Alan Rickman. You had to be there. Or perhaps it’s better you weren’t…) and the album came to be seen in a very different light. In that two day window in which I was listening to it unaware that Bowie was a dying man as he wrote it, it didn’t sound to me like a record about death. If anything, that was a vibe I had got more from the single from his previous album, Where are We Now?, although I suppose that seemed concerned with mortality only in the sense that anyone well into their seventh decade must have, rather than Lazarus which, with the benefit of the hindsight does sound like a man saying goodbye to the world.
I’m not someone who was a huge Bowie fan. I have a compilation album somewhere, and I have dug around a bit in his back catalogue using Spotify, but I was born too late for him to be one of my childhood heroes. And being boringly male and heterosexual, his androgynous 1970s personas were not something that spoke to me personally. As a teenager, I wanted to melt into the background, rather than wear elaborate face paint, still less a dress, and when I was fifteen, he was a dinosaur from an earlier time and I was familiar with him mostly as the man whose The Man Who Sold The World Nirvana covered in their MTV unplugged slot. Looking back now, though his influence was all over the musical world of the 1990s. Suede’s debut album surely couldn’t have existed without Bowie. And U2’s surprisingly interesting 1990s records were in a sense, their own Berlin period. Less obviously, perhaps, I can’t help hearing Bowie in the art-punk experimentalism of the Pixies. So perhaps in part I didn’t get Bowie when I was young because I was born into a musical world that he had already changed.
The odd thing is, while I never really went back and listened to the records which made his reputation – Station to Station, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, or Hunky Dory (the exception, as with the writer of the Mookbarks piece is Low which I uploaded to an MP3 player about eight years ago and found myself listening to a lot for a while) – I did listen to his later albums. As I remember it, I had been lurking in Fopp on Rose St one wet Sunday when Fall Dog Bombs the Moon came on and I thought I’ve got to have that record. And thanks to a piece on the Guardian Weekly Music podcast (sadly no more) I did check out The Next Day when was released out of the blue four years ago.
I expect that had Bowie lived another ten years or more, Black Star would be considered a minor footnote to his career, and have attracted little attention. Which would have been a shame because it’s actually a rather good record. It’s only 7 tracks and 40 minutes long, and at the risk of upsetting the true believers, I think it might actually have been better if it had been released as an EP (if that isn’t an entirely redundant term in an era in which the length of a ‘record’ really need have nothing to do with the amount of information it is possible to encode into a lump of vinyl), scratching Sue (Or in a season of crime) and ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore from the track list.
It starts with the nearly 10 minute long title track which shows that in contrast with many of his contemporaries, Bowie’s music continued to move with the times and suggested a man who was still listening to new music. To my ears at least, the drum patterns in particular sound very much of our time; it’s hard to imagine this record sounding quite as it does if it were released in 1995, let alone 1975. It reminded me a little of late-period Radiohead, albeit a less downbeat Radiohead. A kind of warm, after-dark jazz that put me in mind of sitting out late one evening at the end of a long hot day in the Turkish countryside. That might make it sound like easy-listening coffee shop music, which would be unfortunate because I think it’s more interesting than that.
Lazarus is the song that appears to be most obviously about his impending demise although the final track I Can’t Give Everything Away sounds in its own way like a final statement. The whole album sounds immaculately crafted, and that’s no surprise as I’m sure Bowie was able to call on the best session musicians in the business. And if there’s nothing on this record which is going to stand out as one of his iconic, memorable songs (something that became apparent listening to the Spotify retrospective of his career after he died is that he really did write an awful lot of very good pop singles – there can’t be many artists where a four hour compilation wouldn’t start to try the patience of all but the true believers – as an album it certainly hangs together better than almost anything I’ve heard from stars of the 60s and 70s who are still putting out new material today. Really, that’s what marked him out as one-of-a-kind. Where so many musicians still active in their fifties and sixties are producing pale re-treads of their own previous work, Blackstar demonstrates a man whose creativity remained intact. And in contrast with a certain Nobel Prize winner, his voice sounded great right to the end too.
Highlights: Black Star, Lazarus, I Can’t Give Everything Away