DAVID BOWIE – Blackstar (Columbia)
Why is it that pop stars think all they have to do is employ a jazz combo and expect instant cred? Of course, when it comes to critics, that’s just about all it does take, but in my over 30 years of writing about music, I’ve gotta say I find the device to be more than a little premeditated. It helps if you are iconic within your sphere of musical influence: just take a look at Sting’s The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, his first solo foray after the dissolution of The Police. Here was a proper English gentleman, hanging with some of America’s best young jazz musicians (which in Sting’s mind, apparently translates as “black”), including Marsalis progeny Branford on saxophone, taking a walk on the avant-jazz side. Don’t get me wrong, I think Blue Turtles is a very auspicious solo debut, and tunes like “Fortress Around Your Heart” and “Moon Over Bourbon Street” showed both songwriting maturity and a willingness to take risks. But that’s exactly what good jazz music should do – a belief echoed by the likes of everyone from Jaco to Jarrett. I guess what I’m really asking here is, doesn’t it seem like an ulterior move when a pop heavyweight feels that experimenting with jazz is automatic slam dunk for maintaining artistic relevance?
When Joe Henry transitioned from the Americana/folk on albums like Murder Of Crows and Short Man’s Room to the jazz-tinged stylings of Fuse and Scar, even that leap wasn’t satisfying – he spent the next several years in the basement of the blues. Critics ate it up, but I felt let down. I didn’t need Joe Henry to be the next Tom Waits, and I didn’t feel the genre was such a great fit for his songwriting gift, either. Now comes David Bowie, a man whose always been a genre-defying chameleon, giving us the second installment in his jazz internship (the first being 2013’s The Next Day), the no doubt reflective yet inscrutable Blackstar.
In the case of Bowie however, the flirtation with jazz isn’t exactly a trek into undiscovered territory: many of Bowie’s best-written tunes have had either a covert or subversive jazz ambience, from “Panic In Detroit” to “Let’s Dance”; from “Night Flights” to perennial radio classic, “Changes.” It wasn’t until The Next Day that Bowie concertedly weaved a modern jazz sensibility into his glam rock aesthetic – depending upon who you ask (Bowie purists or fawning rock journalists) it was either a revelation of unparalleled proportions, or a well-meaning yet ultimately unsatisfying affair. The reported (and unexpected) death of the Thin White Duke just days after his 69th birthday took everyone by surprise, and so it seems inevitable that many will elevate this swan song to the same mythical status as Nirvana’s In Utero or Bowie protégé Scott Weiland’s 12 Bar Blues.
Opening with the 10-minute eponymous opus, Bowie is joined by what sounds like a angelic choir as he sings, “In the villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle/On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile…” It’s easily the most solemn opening ever on a Bowie record, but what’s even more remarkable is how much the tune’s sonic template hearkens to Dead Can Dance – the undisputed world-beat purveyors of darkness. During the middle eight section, Bowie takes a step back, towards the more artsy, theatrical, Aladdin Sane period of his oeuvre: “Something happened on the day he died/Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried, I’m a blackstar/I’m not a pop star….” The tune juxtaposes elegiac overtones with skittering drums and swirling synthesizers, sounding more like Radiohead than Bowie, and frankly, I wish he had collaborated with the likes of Philip Selway and Jonny Greenwood than avant-jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin – while there’s no question McCaslin is a talented player (you can hear the raw, unbridled energy and willingness to think outside the box on the Lodger-sounding “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”), McCaslin’s own odd hybrid of jazz and electronica is an acquired taste, and when not treading jazz territory, it comes off as experimental but not necessarily exponential.
A happier medium is obtained on lead single “Lazarus”, whose accompanying, unsettling video finds Bowie writhing away in pain, alone and in a hospital bed, with buttons sewn on his face bandage where the eyes should be. The mournful sax lines and slow-burn attack builds tension as Bowie intones, “Look up here, I’m in Heaven/I’m in danger, I’ve got nothing left to lose…….” – but then he starts talking about wanting to be a bluebird, and suddenly a poignant moment becomes well, a little hackneyed. There. I said it. I appreciate both Bowie the artist and his legacy too much to join the legions who will be writing sycophantic eulogies disguised as objective, critical reviews. Swan song or no, this album is a schizophrenic affair. And all too often, not in a good way.
The other highpoint on Blackstar comes by way of a mid-tempo jazz piece entitled, “Dollar Days” – a song which admits the obsession with material possessions becomes meaningless at the end: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see…../Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to” Bowie sings, his voice free of the theatrical affectation that defined a career – amidst a backdrop of Jason Linder’s sweetly melancholic piano and McCaslin’s weary saxophone, it is by turns pretty, saturnine and resigned. McCaslin’s solo midway holds the same resplendent tone Branford Marsalis employed on Sting’s second album, Nothing Like The Sun, and when Bowie repeats the refrain “I’m trying to, I’m trying to, I’m dying to” you realize with wistful recognition he is slyly inferencing, “I’m dying, too.” Talk about taking a sad song, and making it better – if only one tune lingers in my mind when looking back at Blackstar, I hope that it’s “Dollar Days.”
And that brings me to another sacred cow I must tip over: Tony Visconti. I can appreciate his enduring relationship as friend and producer (from Bowie’s self-titled debut in 1969 to his watershed “Berlin trilogy” – Low, Lodger and Heroes, respectively), and yes, he was behind the helm for those remarkable discs, but sometimes familiarity can breed homoplasy – at least it does here. Again, no matter how many times I listen to Blackstar, the more I wish I could turn back time, and put Nigel Godrich in the producer’s chair instead. With him at the controls, Bowie’s final studio album could have and should have been his Sea Change – certainly a sea change occurred when Bowie discovered a year and a half ago he had cancer. And I can’t help but wish that legacy upon a man that, for all intents and purposes, was a genre-breaking, gender-bending, misfit-avenging, rock’n’rolling chameleon. Not a patronizing “now he’s dead – let’s hyberbolize over a mixed bag of an album” thesis. As a swan song, Blackstar may be prescient, but as a testament to his legacy – where are the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes that represent a true portrait of the artist? 3 STARS