Amid rumours of failing health and no public performance in almost a decade, comes David Bowie's 25th studio album ★ (pronounced Blackstar). Released on 8th January 2016, which also happens to be the singer's 69th Birthday a little self indulgent some might say, but hell if I had the means to do something that awesome for my birthday, I definitely would!
As for these rumours about failing health, long time friend and producer Tom Visconti tells us "He's in fine health. He's just made a very rigorous album." And what an album it is; 42 mins in total with the average song being 4-6 mins in length except the title track (also the album title) which is a whopping 9:57. It was originally over 11 mins but was cut because iTunes don't allow sales of singles longer than 10 mins. Visconti was not pleased but added "David was adamant it [...★ ] be the single, and he didn't want both an album version and a single version, since that gets confusing." The music video for BlackStar was the brainchild of Director Johan Renck who is known for his work on TV series like Breaking Bad, Bates Motel and The Last Panthers. When asked to direct the video he was shocked to tears "I haven't done a music video in a long time, but when Bowie asks, you'd jump at it" John explained during a recent interview. Although the trippy sci-fi imagery was largely left to Johan, Bowie did collaborate on some main ideas.
The album itself is a work of art largely composed of trippy Jazz which isn't surprising given the influences of New York Saxophonist Donny McCaslin and LCD Soundsystem founder James Murphy. Bowie took influences from from Krautrock to hip-hop to drum & bass to exploratory jazz, creating "an incredible fusion sound that can't be pinned to any one genre". Those expecting anything similar to the previous album will be disappointed. As Visconti points out "The Next Day started out to do something new but something old kept creeping back in. Not this album." Taking inspiration from Kendrick Lamar, not in terms of creating a Hip-hop masterpiece, but being brave enough to include different genres and being open to trying new musical ideas.
★ is a bit of an anomaly in terms of track fluidity and although it has a definite flow, it also feels quite chaotic at times but I think this adds to the charm. Given the band spent up to 7 hours a day recording, with Bowie singing solidly from start to finish, this is not surprising. From the slow and soulful Lazarus taken from the Off-Broadway musical of the same name that Bowie wrote original music for, and is co-producing in New York City, to the upbeat and slightly quirky Sue (Or in A Season of Crime) that was release on a 2014 compilation. Also on the album is the very guitar-80s heavy Dollar Days that was recorded in the studio one day when Bowie picked up a guitar and started writing. An interesting fact, the musical is a kind of sequel to the 70s Film The Man Who Fell To Earth.
ike a piece of fine art, ★ is open to interpretation and it is important to let the music speak for itself. Never a one for interview Bowie has always relied on his lyric s to tell his story 'If you want to know about me, just study my lyrics.' Bowie once said. The lyrics to Girl Loves Me "come from Polari, a form of British slang used by gay men in mid-20th-Century London", and Tis a Pity She Was a Whore is titled after a play of the same name written by 17th-Century playwright John Ford.
he final track I Can't Give Everything Away is by far the closest you will get to the Bowie of old. It's beautiful soft vocals, harmonica and guitar solos from Ben Monder steal the show and leaves you feeling like your soul has suddenly taken flight.
All in all this is a great new album. With solid vocals, numerous contributions for a=various talented musicians and an array if musical influences there will be something that will appeal to everyone who give it a listen. And the fact it has been shrouded in secrecy simply adds to the mystique. It is a classic example of Bowie at his singing best, but it does have a sense of randomness about it. I have a feeling this won't be enough to make any new fans, but existing ones are going to love it!
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