David Bowie – ★ (Blackstar): Round 88, Nick’s choice

DavidBowie★Well, we had to play at least one actual Bowie album, surely?

As usual I dithered on what to pick, only actually deciding on the evening (I took all the Bowie albums I owned in a rucksack). Having played Low at record club some time ago that was out, and my initial thought was to play 1. Outside, Bowie’s reunion with Eno from 1995.

1. Outside was the first Bowie album I ever heard, when my sixth form English teacher lent it to me a few months after it was released. 16-year-old me had no idea how to deal with 1. Outside, because it is a ridiculous conceptual mess, has too many songs, is about 25 minutes too long, has loads of ridiculous spoken-word character segues about ‘art-crime’ (wtf), and the mix is overstuffed with layers and ideas to the point of befuddlement and confusion on behalf of the already-conceptually-blindsided listener. 36-year-old me doesn’t really know how to deal with it any better.

That being said, many of the songs on 1. Outside are fantastic, and the music intriguing and creative; Bowie, Eno and their cabal of collaborators casually invent entire new genres at the drop of a hat (industrial jazz, anyone?). With some serious editing, it could have been one of Bowie’s very best records, but instead it’s perceived as an ambitious folly, and very dated. Not wanting to play the whole mess of an album, I compromised and played “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” as an isolated track, because it’s very good.

Instead I played ★, because, well, it’s quite a talking point, for obvious reasons. I’ll spare you the contextual details – he’s dead, don’t you know – and instead say that, for me, ★ was the first contemporary Bowie record that I was interested in hearing. Pre-release chatter – Bowie’s recruited a jazz band and made a krautrock album! – made it sound like it would fall squarely in the Venn diagram sweetspot of my music taste, and so for the first time ever I intended to pick up a Bowie album on the day it was released.

I asked Emma to pick a copy up that Friday if she popped into town, but she didn’t, so she didn’t. I figured I might pop to Sainsburys after work and get a copy, but a footballing injury left me immobile for the weekend. And then I woke up on Monday morning and he’d died.

Which means that by the time I heard ★ I already knew the tragic context of its release, and was unable to listen without prejudice; it will always be the album he released two days before he died to me; it can never just be the new album by David Bowie. Which makes me a little sad, for several reasons.

Which is not to say that I’m in any doubt about the quality of Blackstar – the musicianship, songwriting, arrangements, and mixing are all pretty obviously excellent – I just wish I’d had a chance to form an opinion before the context was revealed.

What’s perhaps most surprising about ★ is how invigorated it is; “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” and “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” in particular are powerfully driven, the new version of the latter almost sounding like Acoustic Ladyland’s frenzied modern jazz rock. It’s also incredibly forward thinking; you can tell it’s Bowie by his voice, obviously, but this is no exercise in retreading past glories – it’s another, final, reinvention, a new sound palette and aesthetic for someone who consistently explored new canvases and textures.

I didn’t pick up The Next Day until last weekend – at the time I wasn’t impressed by “Where Are We Now”, though I think it’s a lovely song now – but listening in hindsight it almost seems like Bowie was getting back in the saddle, working up to match fitness before the main event of this record, which I genuinely do think, even shorn of context, is as good as anything he’s ever done. That ★ is loaded with resonances it didn’t have for a couple of days after it was released just adds to its depth.

Rob listened: Nice to have a bit of Bowie for ‘Bowie Night’. I haven’t been following much of any discussion of Blackstar since Bowie died, but I guess like lots of people, it was the first of his records in living memory that I’d actually been approaching with interest as its release came around. I’d heard a couple of things about the discovery of the backing band and Tony Visconti describing how energetic the sessions had been. ‘Lazarus’ sounded great and an album featuring a reflective Bowie above some meaty, beaty, jazzy rock sounded like a pretty enticing prospect. And then he died and it suddenly never felt like the right time.

Since then I’ve gone back to ‘Scary Monsters’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’ and dabbled with other bits and bobs and especially gone back to those two Iggy Pop albums from 1977, but Blackstar has remained untouchable, a live relic too radioactive with meaning and Bowie’s recent touch to be manhandled. There’s a great line in an American Music Club song, perhaps my favourite of all of theirs, where Mark Eitzel sings “I’m as priceless as a brass ring / that’s losing the heat from your hand…” and I guess that’s how I felt about Blackstar.

So, thanks to Nick for breaking the deadlock. I thought the album sounded pretty good. The opening title track is pleasingly bold, austere and epic, the band slowly unfurling beneath Bowie’s (frankly shot, but not in a bad way) vocals and once those ten minutes are done we’re off an running. ‘Lazarus’ seems likely to stand as a musical epitaph, and it’s a beautifully measured and weighty piece. Elsewhere it was pleasing to note that Bowie still couldn’t shed his love of the shifting, skittering shuffle of a drum and bass beat and there was plenty to get absorbed in across the seven tracks.

I don’t think it’s possible to objectively compare this to Bowie in his 1970s pomp, but it’s a fine record, one I think I’ll go back to, and in that, for me at least, it’s up there with his best.

Tom listened: ….a long time ago now! In fact, since then we’ve lost such a slew of other recording artists (and, only tonight, there are concerns about Sinead O’Connor’s well being) that Bowie’s death seems like quite a distant memory. My world has turned pretty purple of late but if I look back past my current obsession I was deeply invested by the passing of THE great 70s pop icon, not least by the manner in which he orchestrated his life right up to the bitter end. The video for Lazarus had me spellbound – the confluence of music, image and reality aligning to give that brief period of time (because, it seems, all periods of time are brief these days) a real atmosphere.

So, like Rob and Nick, I was intrigued to hear Blackstar…but, to be honest, I still had pretty low expectations. Bowie had released so much less than ecstatically received stuff since Tin Machine that even when reviews started to pick up again (around about the time of Heathen I think) I immediately assumed it was the Mojo/Dylan effect of some hoary old rock journos thinking that the new album might echo if not surpass past glories if they shout about it loudly enough…and all at the same time!

Well…I was wrong about that. Blackstar is magnificent!

 

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Iggy Pop – ‘The Idiot’: Round 88 – Rob’s choice

theidiotIt felt disingenuous for me to bring a Bowie album. We’ve been over this before, but I never really connected properly with his music. I hugely admire what he did, and perhaps even more the way he went about it, but even despite having gone back to those records of his that I own over the last couple of weeks, and having dipped into many of the others via Spotify, I still don’t feel I could claim a solid connection with a particular record, perhaps with the exception of ‘Ashes To Ashes’, or at least not one strong enough for DRC.

But we’re allowed licence to interpret, and Bowie’s direct influence is so extensive and apparent that I haven’t had to push too far off-piste to find something. Initially I thought about bringing Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’, a record I have always loved, that Bowie and Mick Ronson famously produced, and which I know some of the others have mixed feelings about (for some reason ‘New York Telephone Conversation’ is one of the most frequently pilloried tracks at our meetings – actually, for one specific reason: Nick likes to repeat himself).

Instead I skipped forward another 5 years to ‘The Idiot’, also produced by Bowie and, as with Transformer, also heavily reflecting the work he was doing as a solo artist at the time.

Iggy Pop and David Bowie were hand-in-glove throughout the Berlin period, having moved to the city together to escape their spiralling drug addictions. The writing and recording for ‘The Idiot’, Pop’s debut solo album, began in mid-1976, before Bowie started work on ‘Low’, although Iggy’s record was released after the first of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.

The wikipedia page for ’The Idiot’ features a rather telling line, one that hints directly at just how fundamental was the range and impact of Bowie’s influence on the album: ‘The Idiot is regarded by critics as one of Pop’s best works, but is not generally considered representative of his output’. The specifics of the creation of ‘The Idiot’ has been a point of speculation ever since its release. Some have claimed that Bowie wrote the music and Pop the lyrics, others that they switched places frequently. There’s a commonly held assumption that this is effectively a Bowie record that he didn’t want to sing himself, with Iggy little more than a singing and dancing puppet. This view plays neatly into the dual narratives of Bowie as ceaselessly creative genius and Pop as primitive, well, stooge.

I prefer to hear ’The Idiot’ as a genuine co-creation, a meeting of musical minds from wildly differing backgrounds, histories and with vastly different capabilities. That might be partly because I tend to drift towards the uncategorisable savants who seem to be channelling or expressing some innate, restless, inexplicable force, rather than the super-geniuses who are so good because they’re just so damned good. I’ve never clicked with Bowie, but I guess I’ve always been on Team Iggy. Even so, you’d have to admit that ‘The Idiot’ does sound a hell of a lot like a Berlin-period Bowie record with someone else singing on it.

Happily, that’s a very good thing. Much of the tingling tension that animates the album comes from Iggy’s apparent spatial discomfort, his alien status in a soundscape constructed for Mr Pop, by pop’s most famous alien. Iggy sounds out of place in his own record, singing slowly in a lower register over icy, glass-cool synths and proto-industrial drums. He seems unsure whether to croon, to speak, to growl and so he tries all of these approaches and more. His delivery is constantly questing for a place to settle, a way to be, often within the span of just a single phrase.

The guitars that slice through from time to time raise a particularly other-worldly type of havoc, more New York art school than Motor City mosh pit. Check out ‘Nightclubbing’, a neutered disco strafed by a guitar that sounds capable of slicing planets in half. Elsewhere there are tracks that come over like the reanimated corpses of pop songs of the fifties, in a good way. There are songs that start ploddingly, almost declaring their dreary filler status, and yet they go on to charm and intoxicate, and much of the credit for that has to be laid at Iggy’s feet. He is the human heart beating at the centre of this wasted post-industrial wasteland. It’s a collection chilled by dislocation and yet thrilled by the possibilities that were opening up before these two artists.

Compare and contrast this album with the titular opening song from the follow up, ‘Lust For Life’, which was also produced by Bowie and released in the September of the same calendar year (’The Idiot’ was released on my 6th birthday, fact fans). It features Iggy back on sneering, snapping vocal form. It’s much more the rambunctious modern rock record he may have been expected to make on the way back from an early career ripping up the foundations of Detriot dancehalls. It’s terrific in its own way, and the two records together stand up next to any one-two in rock music, but ‘The Idiot’ is so idiosyncratic, so striking and so utterly beguiling that it stands just that little bit above.

Nick listened: I might’ve known Rob would be contrary.

But I’m glad he was, because I’ve been vaguely wanting to hear The Idiot since I read the 33 & 1/3 book about Low a few years ago, and thus found out that Pop’s debut solo album is, in some people’s opinions, essentially a fourth record in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.

And it really does sound like that; corrupted, industrial, mutated r’n’b with a sense of dark European theatre. I enjoyed it greatly, and was delighted when Rob gave me his CD copy because he’s ordered it on vinyl. Thanks, Rob!