Well what can one say about this album now? The events that followed its release will ensure that it is endlessly scrutinized and analysed, but nobody’s going to critique or criticise it now.
Bowie would, I think, be pleased with the way things turned out. The album hit number one before news of his death was released. That would be a gratifying sequence of events. Blackstar was a hit on its own terms.
Since I also did things in the right order, I’ll share some impressions I formed before news of his death changed the way this album would be viewed and talked about.
The band on this record is terrific. This is not unusual. Bowie always had a nose for interesting and talented players and a knack for getting them to play with him. There’s a long list of guitarists that includes Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Carlos Alomar and Stevie Ray Vaughan (who got his big break on the Let’s Dance album), but there was also the inventive and skilled pianist Mike Garson, and Rick Wakeman before him.
For his unexpected come back in 2013 Bowie had relied on long time associates such as Garson, Earl Slick and Gail Anne Dorsey, but for what it’s now clear he knew would be his swansong he opted for a smaller group of players from the skronking world of improvised free jazz.
Another constant is the change. Bowie always seemed restless and repeatedly reinvented himself. But not in the calculated, mercenary way of a Madonna. With Bowie it always felt like he was opening a new box of toys and was having new kinds of fun.
So it is here, with the band playing within the structures of the songs, and Bowie’s compositions and arrangements taking advantage of the considerable fire power at his disposal.
Catching most of the limelight is sax player Donny McCaslin who fills the role that you’d expect a lead guitarist to take. He’s good. Very good. His solos are inventive, his skill is considerable, but he also has the intelligence and the confidence to not bludgeon us to death with chops.
This band, and let me again say that they’re good, allow Bowie to deliver a very contemporary sound that incorporates elements of hip hop and electronica, but over a muscular, restless rhythm section and with Bowie’s familiar vocals and gift for distinctive melody keeping it recognisably him.
The lyrics are elliptical. There didn’t seem to be any unifying concept for the songs, though of course common threads and coded messages are being found now.
So it’s a typical Bowie album (which doesn’t, in Bowie’s case, mean “formulaic”) whilst sounding not quite like anything he’s done before. He went out with the creative juices still flowing.
Much has been said and written about Bowie in the last few days. In particular I enjoyed a piece by a writer who doesn’t usually write about music, the veteran and respected motor racing journalist Joe Saward. He does a good job of explaining Bowie’s cultural rather than musical significance, and you can read his tribute here.
Another interesting piece that I read gave Bowie credit for sowing seeds that would eventually blossom into equal marriage rights for non-heterosexual couples – an embiggening change to our society. His bi-sexuality was probably more invention than fact, but he still became the gay that it was OK to like and wasn’t going to hide.
I was never a huge fan, but I was always interested in Bowie. His repeated changes of tack were always attractive, and you could never accuse him of milking a formula to death. He was simultaneously a chameleon and an innovator. He took chances, and often they worked. And because he made sure he broke away from his defining early image he was able to stay inventive and relevant in a way that most players who started in the 60s did not. Because Bowie was always slaying his image he never got trapped by it.
For a while his eclecticism and the need to cover such a wide range on tour became a problem for him. Until, after a long silence, he released The Next Day in 2013 and announced at the same time that he was no longer going to tour, nor explain himself in interviews. At that point he achieved an artistic freedom that only the Beatles amongst pop musicians had previously enjoyed. He was flying in the face of current received wisdom about the music industry and yet he gained both sales and critical acclaim.
Bowie was a smart operator.
He also was generous and his generosity was returned with loyalty from many that he worked with. Co-producer on Blackstar Tony Visconti first worked with him in 1969 (and was able to match Bowie’s ability to constantly modernise). He launched Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career, gave useful impetus to Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Mott The Hoople and, in the 90s, put Peter Frampton back on the big stage and helped relaunch his career. Now, with his last musical breath (unless there’s another album recorded – I wouldn’t be surprised) he gives publicity and a big pay day to MacCaslin and his band.