Bowie’s final release, two days before the announcement of his death on Monday morning, ranks as one of his finest creative endeavours. David Bowie as we knew him was the man (almost single-handedly) responsible for a career of constant reinvention that saw albums like Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low and Heroes all become canonical exemplars of rock and roll music. Blackstar is a great Bowie record – one of his best in fact, for the same reason that any of those albums are great. He dips into a pool of wildly esoteric influences and emerges with something that’s as vital as anything he’s ever done.
It’s especially impressive because the musical landscape has changed a lot since he teamed up with Eno for the Berlin trilogy. A legion of his devotees have visibly established themselves in the spaces between, artists as diverse as Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Deerhunter. Back in the seventies Bowie himself was devoted to Roxy Music – the Bowie of Heroes is clearly a massive Roxy Music fan. The Bowie of Blackstar, as we’re told by long-time producer Tony Visconti, is the Bowie who’s into Death Grips and To Pimp A Butterfly. That’s not to say that Blackstar is a hip hop album – far from it, but in the endless cycle of limp repetition that’s come to characterise most modern ‘rock’ records it makes sense that Bowie should be channelling two artists who are genuinely exciting and whose own music, while fitting into the ‘hip hop’ category, eschews compositional cliches.
You can hear To Pimp A Butterfly in the title track. Its sampled beats, grand cinematic sweeping strings and horns recall ‘How Much A Dollar Costs’. The likeliest place for the Death Grips influence is in ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’. Originally a 2014 single collaboration with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, the song has been re-recorded over a guitar sample that’s every bit as brutal and unnerving as the avant garde hip hop duo – it climaxes with an exhilarating Aphex Twin style drums and bass coda. The B-side ’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ has also been re-recorded. “If vorticists wrote rock music it might have sounded like this” is how Bowie originally glossed the song. If the 2014 version is a vorticist patchwork then the latest incarnation is high modernism thanks to saxophonist Donny McCaslin. McCaslin’s parts are the freest jazz you’re going to hear on a modern popular record this decade and they impress for just that reason. They pay homage to the beauty-in-tonal-anarchy of Ornette Coleman, another recently deceased innovator whose improv experiments touched Bowie.
For all its fearless inventiveness, the album ends on a touching nostalgic note. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ samples the famous harmonica from ‘A New Career In A New Town’ from Low as Bowie sings: “I know something is very wrong”. Blackstar is unequivocally intended to be his swan song. For the monumental successes of side A of his last record The Next Day, it was largely uneven. It’s not important which record he left us with, but Blackstar is such a resounding success that you can’t help but impose a rose-tinted narrative on its delivery. Already there are a few analyses of how The Man Who Fell To Earth staged his own death, gave us a parting gift, then disappeared back to his home world. Bowie helped fan the flames of this fantastical mythology without question. But watch a few of his old interviews – see how awkwardly he reacts to being put on a pedestal. Art was his job. It was what he was paid to do and he was good at it. We should all thank the man for investing so much energy and thought into his final piece.