Friday, September 09, 2016
DAVID BOWIE - Blackstar
'tis nearing mid September in the year 2016, and yet I still haven't heard a better album this year - or one released this year - which betters DAVID BOWIE's Blackstar LP. If you'd told me on January the 1st that I'd rate David Bowie's imminent and much-touted release as my favourite record of 2016, I'd have called you a smoking joker, and likely much worse. As with just about anyone and everyone I know with a modicum of discerning taste, I hadn't rated anything Bowie had done - bar maybe a single or two - since the late '70s. He went into mersh overload in the '80s (and, in my opinion, had a number of great pop singles in the first half of the decade), but slid considerably into nowheresville by the latter half of the decade, spent the '90s in some sort of faux industrial/drum & bass hellhole and then piffled around in the 21st century trying to play catchup with a handful of 'okay' musical endeavours (I 'liked' the The Next Day, but not enough to want to hear it more than twice).
Bowie is one of those characters who divides opinion amongst the rock cognoscenti, or at least the hardcore rockist elements of it. For some, the mere mention of him as a 'pioneer' or even a 'rocker' is something which brings out the guffaws. Wasn't he merely a musical thief, an opportunist and careerist who stole from other, far more worthy musical entities, and regurgitated it with a sheen for the masses? I give him more credit than that. I have never considered myself a hardcore Bowie fan, but his output circa 1969 - 1979 - just about any of it from that period - is something I can listen to and enjoy and appreciate, and surely that's enough. Bowie himself was at least self-deprecating enough to acknowledge that he totally sold out in the '80s, and for me one of his great mistakes in the '90s, when trying to get 'hip' again, was him hanging out and collaborating with a gormless Bowiephile nudnik like Trent Reznor - but this is all academic. Sometimes those with a great vision of what they want to do and who they are lose it and never get it back.
So, on the morning of the day he passed away, I was on the phone to a certain Warwick Brown, Greville Record proprietor and avid Bowiephile. He was raving to me about the new album, pleading for me to give it a ago, telling me about its avant-garde jazz leanings and its absolutely-no-doubt-in-the-world status as a RETURN TO FORM. I'd heard that before, as we all have, regarding various artists who once paved the way but have been coasting on a whole lot of nothing for decades (prime offender being the Stones, for which a 'return to form' amounts to an album which isn't totally fucking dreadful). I sat down on the toilet - true story - did my business, and streamed the first, self-titled 10-minute track in the meantime. I agreed that it was indeed quite good, but I had other things to do. I was not working that day, the sun was shining and the kids were on summer break, so I went to the beach for the day, vowing to listen to the rest of it when I got home. As I got in the door later in the afternoon, I received the text from a workmate that Bowie had died, social media went nuts and you either cared a lot, a little or not at all. I spent the evening quietly listening to Low, Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory and, while not wanting to get caught up in some sort of mass mourning for a fellow I never even knew, had to acknowledge that life on earth would have been a whole lot more dull had 'David Bowie' - that character of creation from middle-class post-war Blighty - not been invented.
A few days later I came back around to Blackstar. I streamed and I streamed. I found myself devouring every bit of information I could regarding this mysterious album. It was a cryptic parting gift, for sure, but it was also musically the most interesting thing he'd offered the world since I was in short shorts and he'd even roped in some genuine 'jazz musicians' as his backing band, not as a simple gimmick, but because their musical contributions counted. Interestingly - well, it's at least of interest to me - there's some musicians from the ECM fold present, notably guitarist Ben Monder, who released an album on the label earlier this year. Bowie had a knack for much of his career in hand-picking a good band, a talent which shouldn't be dismissed. The vinyl edition went out of print immediately, so I had to wait a good month before I could procure a copy. I'm not a big advocate for format snobbery, but in this case, the vinyl edition is the way to absorb oneself in the release. This is not only because of the ridiculously lavish nature of the packaging (gatefold die-cut sleeve, embossed ink, deluxe booklet with beautifully extravagant ink work), but because the album itself - a mere seven songs in 41 minutes - has a side A and a side B. It doesn't sound like a release of the CD or streaming era. Whether this is accidental or deliberate, or whether I'm just reading that observation into it is up for debate, so feel free to do that amongst yourselves. At the very least, barring a few displays of modern technology, it sounds like it could have been recorded 40 years ago. Would I have found this album quite so fascinating had the man himself not passed away a couple of days after its release? Probably not, but context is much of what we hear when we listen to music, and in the light of what took place, Blackstar is one fucking special record, one which has brought me great peace of mind in 2016. For those with an open mind and a pair of functioning earholes, there is simply no reason why you shouldn't give it a listen.