Recorded in near-secrecy throughout 2014 and ’15, Blackstar is David Bowie’s most alien -sounding album since the early ’80s. Not coincidentally, it also is the art-rock icon’s most rewarding in that entire time. Beginning with the eerie title cut (on which the singer cryptically chants, “On the day of execution, on the day of execution…”), listeners are dropped into an immersive journey through mystifying compositions, brooding vocals both gnarled and smeared, blurred strings, vaporous jazz horns and skittering beats that weave crisscrossing patterns like bird claws in a field of fresh snow.
Excluding a couple of pieces (the fairly orthodox “Lazarus” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”), the 69-year-old Bowie sounds like a musician hell-bent on tearing apart our accepted notions of what modern rock could and should sound like. There’s not a single indie rock band a quarter of Bowie’s age that is coming up with anything as inventive as the absurdly enigmatic, cyborg-tinged “Girl Loves Me.”
We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar.
On a more personal level, he comes off like a veteran artist who is boldly, fearlessly searching for a way to radically upend the expectations of his hyper-devoted fanbase. Because of this, the adventurous Blackstar stands in stark contrast to its predecessor, 2013’s The Next Day, which found him delivering vintage-stained rock that genuflected before its maker’s towering legacy.
Though the recording sessions were shrouded in mystery, in an interview with Rolling Stone published in November, Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti offered up this tantalizing nugget of insight: “We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.”
It’s true that one would be hard-pressed to point out any specific moments on Blackstar that explicitly recall the rapper’s critically lauded masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. Outside of Visconti’s daring production, which definitely utilizes a heavily layered, collage-like approach, not unlike Lamar’s, the connections between the two records are impressionistic more than anything else.
At the same time, the fact that Bowie looked to cutting-edge African-American music for inspiration is a pivotal development. After all, it’s a 21st-century upgrade of his mid-’70s aesthetic, when he unleashed a trio of classics — Station to Station, Low and Heroes — that featured different aspects of disco, funk and fusion (i.e. what was then considered cutting-edge, African-American music) filtered through his own avant-garde sensibilities.
The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.
Built from soulfully soaring vocals, cosmic studio effects and thick, rubbery bass licks, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” exemplifies this unique approach to sonic integration better than any other tune on the record.
Not surprisingly, many of the lyrics found on Blackstar border on the inscrutable. Their precise meaning takes a backseat to their sound and how they deliciously float, glide and dance through the mysterious music. Exceptions can be found, however. “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again,” Bowie croons on the penultimate “Dollar Days.” It’s a telling line, one that sums up an album that unfolds like an immaculately rendered riddle meant to confound those of us who succumb to its inimitable hypnotism.