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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Polar Bear – Same As You: Round 84, Nick’s choice

Polar_Bear_Same_As_YouIt wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Polar Bear have been one of my favourite bands over the last decade, since they first came to my attention as the ‘token jazz nominee’ in the 2005 Mercury Music Prize for Held On the Tips Of Fingers. I feel like I’ve talked about them a lot at record club but never played them – although I did play their (now defunct) rambunctious sister-group Acoustic Ladyland once upon a time.

Polar Bear have been notable for their constant evolution between – and sometimes within – records, but last year’s In Each And Every One pushed them in quite radical, and at times unrecognisable directions; it sounded like the work of a completely different band to their previous record, Peepers (to be fair, there had been a 4-year gap).

Somehow, Same As You manages to do the same again, and sees them broaching even more new ground. Mixed in the Mojave desert, Same As You appears at first glance and from a distance to be sparse, arid even, but upon closer inspection reveals huge detail and perpetual, subtle movement. Where its predecessor occasionally obsessed over the gloomy end of the emotional spectrum, its minimalism occasionally burst by skronking intensity, Same As You is quietly positivist and relaxed, its sunny, love-fuelled intent laid out in a spoken-word introduction about “life, love, and light”.

The key components of the album are Seb Rochford’s polyrhythmic drumming and Tom Herbert’s almost dub-y stand-up bass playing; they form a low-key, constantly shifting bedrock for tenor sax and electronics to subtly explore. Nowhere is this clearer than the 20-minute rumination of “Unrelenting Unconditional”, where Herbert’s nimble fingers are the absolute driving force for most of the running time. Solos exist, but they paint in the margins most of the time, and never seem to be overtly seeking attention.

After the spoken-word intro, “We Feel The Echoes” sets the tone for the album by almost completely disintegrating after four minutes. The tune slowly re-emerges, but it’s so low-key as to almost seem apologetic for being music; and yet it’s beautiful.

If Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is probably the biggest (in every sense) jazz album of the year – an acclaimed, hip-hop circling crossover success that lasts for THREE HOURS and celebrates an entire history of American jazz – then Same As You is almost its opposite: where The Epic is grand, flamboyant, searching and, well, epic, Same As You is quiet, humble, and contented, even as it explores new spaces and sounds. I like The Epic a lot, but through admiration and awe by and large; I love Same As You in a very different and much more personal way.

Rob listened: I loved this. I didn’t get sparse or arid vibes from it as Nick suggests. Instead, in its spaces and absences and digressions ‘Same As You’ seemed intimate adn human. From the grain of the voice that opens the record, you can hear the movement and concentration and the fingerprints of the people who made this music, in each pawed bass string, each brushed snare drum and each pushed sax key. We heard this straight after Grouper, another artist unafraid to remove herself from the foreground and let the world around her and the world in the listener’s head fill the spaces. I got the warmth that Nick describes, but not from sunny sounds, rather from the feeling of being in the company of good people making beautiful music.

Tom listened: This was a strange listen to me, a bit like one of my victoria sponge cakes, it was delicious all the way round but sagged a bit in the middle. So I was immediately hooked by the voice and atmosphere of the spoken word opener which led into the equally fine We Feel The Echoes. From there I don’t recall much until the gargantuan last track which lasted for twenty minutes and at no point felt too long! So, whilst I didn’t unequivocally fall for all the tracks on Same As You, I very much enjoyed at least 35 minutes of it!