Leave it to Bowie to take U-turns and create music that balances between the zones of pop/rock and “what on Earth am I listening to?” No, really. Ever since he went batshit crazy in Berlin, every single Bowie aficionado expected him to push the limits again. After Berlin, he did push them, but only once in a blue moon. He did change often, but the radical revolutionary approach including a hyperspace jump out of the comfort zone wasn’t there that often.
Just when we wanted to give up and admit that the Duke has retired, he surprised us with a single and an album mostly done in his classy pop/rock style. With the 2013 The Next Day, Bowie spawned a small amount of surprises and barely set foot out of his pop comfort zone. But, hey! The man surprised us, the material was pretty good and he had some future classics there. It was out of the blue, it was shocking. The year after The Next Day brought us a new single, which was jazz. Avant-garde jazz. I have to admit it took me about twenty repeats of the song to finally tune in to it. The single, weirdly named Sue (or in the season of crime) had a full blown orchestra of jazz musicians who sound both chaotic and precise at the same time with Bowie’s best crooning voice layered over it in a sort of an offbeat manner. It was just a clear sign that Bowie forgot about the reception of both critics and the audience. It proved that he was experimenting again, which sparked an old flame wherever Bowie is worshipped.
A year later, an upcoming TV show The Last Panthers proudly presented its opening credits scene, spiced up with a new Bowie track. In the meantime, Bowie started working on a musical based on The Man Who Fell to Earth (a late 70s film Bowie starred in). Before you knew it, news leaked claiming that he’s preparing a new album, all avant-garde, experimental and completely new. As in – uncharted territory. Tomorrow morning, the official Bowie camp confirmed the leak and the hype began. The album’s name is ★ (pronounced Blackstar). The title track, and the ‘leading single’ is a ten minute long epic with lyrics yet to be deciphered and a videothat people are still discussing online. There’s the new look, the new style, the new gang (he didn’t use his usual band, he wanted jazz players to play rock, not the other way around). He maybe is famous for his eclecticism, but let’s face it, it was (somewhat) easy to be diverse in the 70’s. In the 21st century, however, it’s next to impossible. It was, until now.
Bowie did it again. When Low came out, as the first piece of the Berlin triptych, critics sank their naive teeth into its raw warm flesh of musical experimentation, dooming it at its birth. Just a couple of years later, the album was considered one of the greatest works of art in the 20th century. Today, the critics aren’t as narrow-minded and magazines such as Q and MOJO have given the Blackstar a four star rating (meaning excellent in their system) in their January issues (available now).
Anyhow, some of us aren’t as lucky and will have to savour the taste of the single for some time. Since its start it’s clear that at his oldest, Bowie is younger than Ziggy Stardust. A song structured out of a jazzy ambiental/Radioheadish trip, cut harshly with a glam pop section and ending with a groovy variation of the first part works like a charm. In the villa of Orman/Stands a solitary candle Bowie chants in the song’s beginning with a voice fragile and experienced as if he could sing anything. In an interview with MOJO magazine, Bowie’s long-time friend, producer and music mate, revealed that Bowie was influenced by A Clockwork Orange (the book) and that he tried to connect people who had never played the type of the music he is actually famous for. Throughout the song, he claims he is not a pop star, film star, gangstar (yup, he went for the pun there), but he is a Blackstar. After Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, Thin White Duke and others, we have Blackstar, a new character maybe?
So, the Blackstar is mocking the culture of pop and stardom once again, he’s messing with weird musicians and he’s pushing the limits, both his and ours. While we’re there, the song itself shouldn’t be catchy at all, if you think of elements it is made of, but in a weird twist of fate, Blackstar is catchy as hell. Believe me, this is not a personal matter, I’ve heard the same opinion from people who were not raised by Bowie’s back catalogue.
When the hype started, a friend of mine posed a simple question: What if he blows it? Luckily enough, he didn’t blow it, he blew us away, instead.