Sunday, February 21, 2016
STATION TO STATION: "BLACKSTAR" DAVID BOWIE
David Bowie: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Fender Guitar on "Lazarus," String Arrangements
Donny McCaslin: Flute, Saxophone, Woodwinds
Ben Monder: Guitar
Jason Lindner: Piano, Organ, Keyboards
Tim Lefebvre: Bass Guitar
Mark Guiliana: Drums and Percussion
James Murphy: Percussion on "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)" and "Girl Loves Me"
All music and lyrics by David Bowie
except "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)"
music and lyrics by David Bowie, Maria Schneider, Paul Bateman and Bob Bharma
Produced by David Bowie and Tony Visconti
Released January 8, 2016
How do I even begin...
It has been a little over one month since the release of what is now sadly David Bowie's final album and of course, the beloved artist's passing from an 18 month fight with liver cancer on January 10th, just two days after reaching his 69th birthday, therefore making the tenor of this specific album review/exploration change considerably as the music itself and my response to it has changed as well. In fact, I should tell you that within this month, I have only heard the album in full only one time, the weekend of its release. I haven't listened to it since, partially because I have been pouring over Bowie's discography and even more truthfully, I was just feeling too sad to hear what longtime Producer, friend and colleague Tony Visconti has expressed was Bowie's "farewell gift" to his fans all over again just yet.
Mourning over David Bowie has proven itself to be utilizing its own time table as the grief has shown considerable endurance. Just days after his death and driving in the early morning January hours to work while listening to the song "Station To Station," I found myself spontaneously overcome with sadness and tears despite the insistence of that track's propulsive grooves. I guess Bowie just felt to be a creature possessing a certain immortality, and seeing that he was just a man, his mortality maybe shed light upon my own or something. I do not know. I just know that my friend was gone and I missed him terribly, saddened to know that I would never hear from him again.
As I have been travelling through past material and music, I have been simultaneously amazed all over again with the creativity, innovation and sheer breadth and diversity of the albums while also hearing the songs in completely new ways. Take his breakthrough 1969 single of "Space Oddity." What has always been a straightforward narrative about a lonely astronaut finding himself lost in space, has now revealed itself to me as maybe also working as a metaphor for life and death itself. Lines of Major Tom "stepping through the door" while "floating in a most peculiar way" as he travels past 100 thousand miles yet feels very still inside of his "tin can" (a coffin, perhaps) with farewell messages of love to his wife just transformed what was already a melancholy song into something even more poignant to my ears. Maybe I'm reading too much into things but isn't that what art is for?
But let's get back to the album at hand...
In a mere span of four short days, between January 8th and January 11th, I experienced the wildly swinging emotions from high flying celebration to the aforementioned tear stained mourning. The media events leading up to the release of the album were intriguing to say the least. Articles proclaiming that Bowie's latest musical project would lean more towards jazz arrangements and performances, as well as citing both D'Angelo and the Vanguard's "Black Messiah" (released December 15, 2014) and Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly" (released March 15, 2015) as two of the albums Bowie was listening to and served as some of the creative influences over the recording proceedings was exciting enough. But, it was the release of two short film music videos, one for the nearly 10 minute title track and the other for "Lazarus" and both directed by Johan Renck, that gave me the most sense of an anticipatory pregnant pause.
In both videos, which are darkly surreal, more than a bit creepy and fully transfixing, I simply could not believe that I was viewing. There he was, David Bowie, adopting a new persona as some sort of blind prophet (now confirmed to have been christened "Button Eyes"--a blindfolded figure with buttons for eyes) surrounded by images of what looks to be some sort of exorcism, a woman with a tail carrying a jewel encrusted skull and most oddly, a trio of writhing, sexually gyrating yet crucified scarecrows. The sight of the remains of a dead astronaut should have been more than telling, but it all just went past me in a wash, where I was significantly disturbed yet also found myself laughing to myself feeling that Bowie was just being Bowie in ways he had not been in a long time.
The "Lazarus" film now plays as an open declaration of Bowie's then impending mortality. But again, I was distracted and disturbed by the Button Eyes character, now laying in repose in a hospital bed, at times levitating, juxtaposed with Bowie adorned in his "Station To Station" costume, prancing and performing in herky jerky movements conveying a restlessly creative spirit at work only to slow, shuffle and finally disappear inside of an armoire (again, is it a coffin?), Yet, at the time I first saw the video, I was dumbfounded, stupefied and enormously intrigued and fully unaware of the deeper layers at work.
January 8th arrived and it was finally time to hear "Blackstar" in its entirety. Once I purchased the album and gave it my initial listen, remember, David Bowie was still alive and therefore, my experience was one of celebration, even exaltation as it was a rigorously thrilling album from start to finish, perhaps the strongest release of his later period of album releases and most certainly, a stellar companion album to "Station To Station," an album which would reach its 40th anniversary on January 23rd. In fact, when I was first planning to write about the album, here is what I wrote on the afternoon of January 9th:
"Dear readers and listeners, the year is just a hair over one week old and we now already have one of the best albums of 2016! "Blackstar," the 25th album from David Bowie--remarkable strength, vitality and restless creativity and an imagination that is as lustrous as it is often macabre."
My first listen to "Blackstar" was a fully invigorating experience. The melodies stuck like glue, the songs connected instantly while not for any stretch making themselves easily accessible or remotely commercialized, and what struck me so powerfully was the man himself. David Bowie just sounded as if he was creatively on fire! His voice was as strong and as expressive as ever. His collaboration with Tony Visconti remained fervently fruitful and the musicians he handpicked to record with him were superbly fluid, progressive and not only able to keep up with Bowie but at times seemed to even push him to extend to even greater heights. On first listen, "Blackstar" revealed itself to be an album of restless inventiveness, palpable tension and intensity, and although not all of the lyrics leaped out at me (I tend to connect with the music first), I could detect some themes of mortality contained within the album's seven songs. But again, the signs were not obvious to me as I was so swept away. I figured that it would be more than logical for Bowie to muse over life's end, especially as Bowie has already done so in the past and would certainly seem to be prevalent as he was closer to the end of life than the beginning due to his age. It just never occurred to me that he was sending arcane and clear messages to the listener. I was so astounded by the album that I was already wondering to myself just where could David Bowie head next?
And then, January 10th arrived and as U2's Bono tweeted so perfectly, and solely utilizing Bowie's own lyrics, "Planet Earth is blue."
Three years ago, when David Bowie returned to the public eye after a ten year absence with the release of the terrific, vibrant "The Next Day" (released March 8, 2013) as well as the retrospective touring exhibition "David Bowie Is...," his activity felt as if he was greeting us with a "Hello" after a lengthy spell away. With "Blackstar," and how his death has newly informed the music itself, we now realize that with its ocean of turbulence giving way to release by album's end, David Bowie has given us a work that serves as an epitaph, an elegy and a deeply moving "Goodbye."
"Blackstar" opens with the aforementioned, nearly ten minute title track that initially moves at the pace of a dirge yet is augmented by Donny McCaslin's serpentine saxophone, Tim Lefebvre's insistent, sinister bass guitar playing and Mark Guiliana's skittering drums which recall the electronic drum and bass textures of Bowie's "Earthling" (released February 3, 1997) combined with the hip-hop drumming styles of figures like Questlove and Chris "Daddy" Dave.
With Bowie's arrival in the song, he paints a surreal audio painting of a scene set within the "villa of Ormen" where "a solitary candle" sits "at the centre of it all" offering light to an execution where "only women kneel and smile." Bowie's multi-tracked vocals carry the sound of what felt to be a collective of sad monks moaning in endless mourning and yet the effect is intoxicating. Even moreso, is when the song shifts focus near its midsection as "Blackstar" phases into what feels to be the saddest soul music recorded yet with a bit of a swaggering shuffle (just listen to the drums, the horns and especially, the bass--it's as if even on the edge of oblivion, Bowie is still inviting us to dance).
Now, after several listens, the lyrics of this section do indeed leap outwards:
"Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried
'I'm a blackstar! I'm a blackstar'
How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
'I'm a blackstar! I'm a blackstar! I'm not a gangstar"
OK...how do I even begin with this?
Performing a little bit of research, I discovered that Ormen is indeed a location in Norway. I have also seen that "Ormen" is supposedly the plural of the word "Orm," which also supposedly means "worm, grub or maggot," clear themes of death and decay. Yet, other internet searches show no such findings. Or, is Bowie just playing with language (a tactic that occurs throughout the album) where "Orman" is in fact " all men"?
Maybe the first stanza is reflecting upon mortality with the spiritual idea that when one soul leaves the material world, it is making room for a new spirit to enter. Maybe he is reflecting upon mortality through the lens of pop culture and the role he has played within shaping that culture, especially as he and the late Elvis Presley shared the same birthday, for instance. Bowie was an avid Elvis Presley fan and Presley also performed a song entitled "Black Star" for the film in which he starred entitled "Flaming Star" (1960), and whose opening lyrics proclaim, "Every man has a black star/A black star over his shoulder/And when a man sees his black star/He knows his time, his time has come."
Delving deeper, who have we the public perceived a figure like Elvis Presley or now David Bowie to have been ("David Bowie Is..."), especially as he rigidly separated his private and public lives so powerfully? And therefore, how did Bowie ever perceive himself, perhaps as referenced through the repeated refrains of "I'm not a film star/I'm a star's star/I'm not a white star/I'm not a porn star/I'm not a wandering star/I'm a blackstar."
And then, all of the questions the song poses seem to be answered, to a degree, by the spiritual world itself, and rather cheekily:
"I can't answer why
Just go with me
I'm-a take you home
Take your passport and shoes
And your sedatives, boo
You're a flash in the pan
I'm the Great I AM"
"Flash in the pan." In matters of the nature of existence itself, that is indeed true. We are all mere flashes in the pan...
By the time the two sections of the song merge into one and flows to its ominous, foreboding conclusion, David Bowie has already exquisitely set the stage for a demanding, dizzying listening experience.
As with the music video, once the album's third song "Lazarus" arrives, it now sounds like a (mostly) clear declaration of Bowie's state of being at the time of the album's making as well as the off Broadway play of the same name that Bowie envisioned as a quasi sequel to his celebrated art film, Director Nicholas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell To Earth" (1976). Here, the language is plain and stark as he comments upon himself, his declining health, his past, the effects of medication as well as the nature of his role within the pop culture lexicon and what will occur once he passes away.
"Look up here, I'm in Heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama, can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now
Look up here, man, I'm in danger
I've got nothing left to lose
I'm so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain't that just like me?"
Musically, the song is equally stark and stunning, with the dry, fat sound of Guiliana's drums serving as Bowie's slowly ticking life clock while McCaslin's melodically mournful horns and the guitars of both Bowie and Ben Monder providing a clear menace. The cold specter of death is certainly close but somehow the presentation also contains a certain warmth with its open vulnerability.
I realize that by this point David Bowie's "Blackstar" may be sounding as if it is an interminable and painful listening experience. Trust me, dear readers and listeners, it is anything but. While these songs may sound to be filled with more than their fair share of doom, the album in full is filled not only with dangerous dark alleys but sections of pure grace and light and even humor (I especially loved hearing his frequent usages of street vernacular--"I was looking for your ass"-- yet filtered through an exaggerated, theatrical English voice).
As bookends to "Lazarus," we have the album's second and fourth tracks,"'Tis A Pity She's A Whore" and "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)," both re-recordings of two selections Bowie included in the compilation album "Nothing Has Changed" (released November 17, 2014) and each based upon the the 17th century tragic play entitled "Tis Pity She's A Whore" written by John Ford. Both selections provide the album with tremendous scope, agility and musical fury as Bowie and his musicians are all given ample opportunities to go for broke to outstanding effect as the former, with its aggressive bob and weave groove, plays upon Bowie's classic themes of sexual ambiguity ("Man, she punched me like a dude!") while the latter is a cacophony of murder, violence and madness, essentially the destruction of the body and the spirit.
"Girl Loves Me" is the album most head scratching track as the bizarre lyrical content fully serves the relentless stomp of the music. Utilizing the invented language of author Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962), itself a work Bowie had long admired, we are treated to a barrage of gobbeldy-gok that is occasionally punctuated by the pointed, enraged question, "Where the fuck did Monday go?" Whether serving as yet another song of madness either through insanity or through the ravages of the mind as the body begins to fail and time itself feels to blur. And therefore, perhaps the title refers to his 24 year marriage to Iman, where despite his illness and impending death, she has indeed loved him to the very end.
It is within the album's final two tracks where all of the tension from before begins to calm and culminate in a sense of release. "Dollar Days" feels like Bowie is acknowledging his fate yet even still, he is flowing alternately through all five stages of grief, with regrets, accomplishments and visions of the places he wishes to see and experience, either in the material world or wherever he feels that he is heading.
"Cash girls suffer me, I've got no enemies
I'm walking down
It's nothing to me
It's nothing to see
If I'll never see the English evergreens I'm running to
It's nothing to me
It's nothing to see
I'm dying to
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I'm trying to"
Again, and ever the trickster, Bowie continuously plays with language as the repeated refrains of "I'm dying to" could easily be heard as "I'm dying, too." of course, ever mysterious, we will never fully know which version he intended.
"I Can't Give Everything Away," the album's finale opens with the music of movement, a groove that sounds like travel and is augmented by the very harmonica sounds that accompanied the track "A New Career In A New Town" from the album "Low" (released January 14, 1977). This is the song where David Bowie bids us all farewell, as he travels from this life towards wherever, in his trademark enigmatic fashion.
"I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal son
The blackout hearts, the flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
I can't give everything away
I can't give everything
Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That's the message that I sent
I can't give everything
And as the music reaches its final crescendo, with cymbal crashes blasting apart, all sounds fading into nothingness, "Blackstar" and David Bowie himself reach their respective ends.
Contrary to the earliest reports, David Bowie's "Blackstar" is not really jazz music and furthermore, it's not really rock music either. "Blackstar" is nothing else but David Bowie music, the very type that transcends any and all other musical genres but somehow exists within all of them in order to create a completely individualistic musical language and universe where David Bowie sits at its epicenter. And therefore, it is a musical universe that has folded in upon itself in conclusion, never to be heard from again but can always be re-experienced anytime we listen to his music of the past.
While artists from the likes of Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, Glen Campbell and George Harrison among others have all created musical works with the full knowledge of their impending mortality, there is something about David Bowie's "Blacksar" that feels especially stirring. Like J Dilla's masterpiece "Donuts" (released February 7, 2006), which was largely created from Dilla's hospital bed, released upon his 32nd birthday and only to pass away three days afterwards, David Bowie proved himself to undoubtedly be an artist to the very end, boldly weaving his own mortality into the art itself while forever retaining his mystery, which still makes his death feel so impossible. Again, he just seemed to be so otherworldly, so beyond any of us mere mortals and maybe that is a somewhat nice way to dull the ache--perhaps David Bowie just returned to where he came from, his time with us and his job for us completely finished and fully realized. Even so, it will take time for this exquisite ache to lessen its sting.
It seems to be especially fitting that "Blackstar" has arrived so closely to the 40th anniversary of "Station To Station" as the music, lyrics and imagery seems to play off of that specific period while also commenting upon Bowie's final days. For that matter, even pay attention to the album's packaging which prints lyrics and credits in black lettering upon a black background, only being able to be read by shining some light upon it, jointly acknowledging the labyrinthine nature of the material and the artistic nature of Bowie's mortality as his life was indeed fading to black. "Blackstar" is entirely about moving from a variety of stations to new stations, from beginnings to endings, life to death, and death to infinity. In total, David Bowie, with his artistic output now complete, has encapsulated not only what it means to live, but what it means to die and thrillingly, uncompromisingly and unrepentantly so.
What a gift he has been to us for so long and for so many and what a gift he has left for us with "Blackstar."