Bowie’s back. Taking a look at his epic new material… Blackstar.
Then wandering from… Station to Station.
It was the day before the Mercury Music Prize, an award that nodded to Bowie for his triumphant last album, but didn’t let him steal the crown or claim the next day… It was the day before Adele’s 25 finally emerged to sink records.
So when better to grab a slice of prime time satellite television. It’s almost like there’s a meticulous plan behind it all. Of course there is.
2013’s The Next Day may not have been the Bowie be all and end all, but it was an impressive album that came closer than many thought possible. There are few phrases as dismissive as “superior rock”, especially in this case. It was raw, confrontational, deeply political, in a way that put bristling teen and 20-something bands to shame. And the first, surprise single Where are We now? was both an intriguing primer and also absolutely no indication of what was to follow. I took a close look at The Next Day in 2013 and lamented the lack of awards – although claiming the oldest ever Best Male at the Brit Awards, making excellent use of Kate Moss and angering some nationalists was a bonus.
And so history repeats with the reveal of Blackstar.
It emerged suddenly, and typically from misinformation, speculation and radio silence. Rumoured to be a total break with the past that The Next Day had great fun with from the allbum cover through to percussion, the only thing that can be reckoned on is that this lead single and its art installation accompaniment is no indication of what will emerge in January’s album.
The performers are generally new, the jazz leanings from last year’s Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) are clear.
But there’s far more in there as well. Breaks with the past are always difficult to ascertain. For one, Bowie was easily the leading proponent of mainstream music movements from early 70s glam through to 90s drum n’ bass. On the other, Bowie has continually poked into his past, layering himself even as his persona changes distilled to hair length. In what I call his forgotten trilogy of the late 90s and early 00s, there were many nods to the past. The Bowiearty generally agree that The Next Day captured the melancholy of Hours, the kineticism of Reality and set itself as a spiritual successor to his Berlin days with far more ease than even the rather brilliant Heathen.
While compulsory producer Tony Visconti has made pains to set out Blackstar’s stall as a break with the past, as ever it’s there to see if you want it. The varispeed vocals, the Outside posing, the string electronica very reminiscent of his late 90s work and those famous b-sides of Heroes or Low. So perhaps, what’s brewing here is the b-side to The Next Day, an album that for all it’s forced and playful referencing to the mid-70s, didn’t confront every part of Heroes.
Station to Station
But it’s also an ambitious, artictic and complicated sprawl of a song. Perfect to be hidden in the theme of Sky’s The Last Panthers. Bowie has constantly played with long-form and sequential musical references, from early days to New Romantic period. But the stand-out remains the opening track on his short, brilliant and pre-Berlin 1976 album Station to Station.
I’ve tried to look into the history of band opuses – to find a link. There must be some kind of map that cuts through generations. From Bohemian Rhapsody to Paranoid Android, perhaps with the Beatles A Day in the Life sneaking in and for me Station to Station taking honorary status. Unfortunately, it always seems that too much scrutiny would ruin the tradition. The more you look the more those links obscure.
I once listened to Station to Station so much I had to stop for the sake of my mind.
The introduction of his Thin White Duke persona, it remains his longest studio recording, dragging in mythology, religion and magick and mysticism into it’s multi-part structure. Around the references it build from the train tracks through the guitars (Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar of course – MIA on the forthcoming album) to the brillaint and ambiguous ending trade off between “It’s too late” and “The European cannon is here” (or, “canon”?). Undoubtedly his most direct confrontation of cocaine until Ashes to Ashes half a decade later.
It’s a more personal song than Blackstar, or rather for an artist where every song is personal, every song is an interpretation of a love song, it’s a different view on the personal. That suggests Blackstar the album may take a step back from the personal reference , but I wouldn’t put any Bowie bonds on it.
Director Johan Renck has sculpted a gratifyingly stunning video for Blackstar. Among many lights, the synchronisation of the segment change and scarecrow reveal around the six minute mark is captivating. After the deliberately awkward set of promos that backed his last release, it’s great to see talent and money raise their game. This is after all the man who cut music videos in his image in the late 70s.
Best of all, it leaves many questions. Is that Major Tom? He’s now reached god-status? Is it more Gaiman and McKean than Little Big Planet? Will radio stations happily take that brilliant mid-section as their own radio cut?
It’s dividing opinion, scaring, puzzling and bemusing. So far then, a brilliant return.
There should be questions…