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18 January 2016

Reading the runes of David Bowie’s Blackstar

People have trained themselves to look for the riddles and tricks in Bowie's music, but this time he was hiding nothing.

By Kate Mossman

There comes a point in the life of a celebrated musician when nothing you do, short of committing a crime, is going to make the blindest bit of difference to your reputation. None of your new songs is going to stick in the public consciousness like the ones you’re already famous for, no matter how good or bad they may be. Kate Bush albums are met with automatic five-star reviews, but show me the fan whose favourite Kate Bush song is the one where Stephen Fry reads out 50 different words for snow. It can’t be easy making music when the people who buy it have reached their critical saturation point – especially when that point is adulation. How do you keep yourself interested, and stay ahead of the game that your audience is so entirely convinced you are playing?

Both Bush and David Bowie helped shore up their power by staying out of public view for years, lobbing surprises over the parapet. We thought we knew two things about Bush: that she doesn’t play live or do interviews – so in the past couple of years she’s done both. In January 2013 David Bowie put out an album, The Next Day, which no one knew was in the pipeline, not even his PRs. There were no leaks, no hints and no rumours. For one heady day – his 66th birthday – he was more powerful than the internet. How do you top that?

A week ago, critics were reviewing his new album, Blackstar, and trying to locate the surprise. It had to lie in the music this time, when last time it was all about the delivery. He’d gone and got himself a jazz band, the Donny McCaslin Quartet, whom he first saw playing the 55 Bar in Manhattan early in 2013 (with a power only Bowie could wield, he sent the sax player out to do some of the promotional interviews for the album). Many of the songs are semi-improvised, with a ponderous, ambulatory structure that adds to a sense of mystery unfolding.

The centrepiece title track is a strange, ten-minute movie-of-the-mind that starts in the unsettling soundworld of eastern deserts and then breaks, unexpectedly, into a light Motown-tinged ballad with a tune that wouldn’t be a million miles from Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love”, if you laid one on top of the other. This epic track actually came out last year, along with the album’s two other substantial offerings, “Lazarus” and “Sue”. I wondered if the joke, this time round, was that when you finally got your hands on Bowie’s new album you realised you’d already heard the best stuff for free.

You didn’t know, when you were working your way through the record – analysing what the Gil Evans-style horns added to his voice, wondering if lines about arriving in New York and living like a king continued the personal biography of 2013’s “Where Are We Now?” – that none of these things was the surprise you were looking for. When Bowie released a video of himself flailing around on a sickbed last Friday (“Lazarus”), no one saw the wood for the trees – he’d looked healthy enough in the video for “Blackstar”, thumbing his nose at the camera.

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People had trained themselves to look for riddles and tricks and higher meanings in his songs and videos, but this time he wasn’t hiding anything. Blackstar, an album we assumed would join the ranks of other late-life offerings, greedily devoured and quickly forgotten, will go down as one of his most important. 

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie