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!


David Bowie – Low: Round 31, Nick’s choice

Many years ago as a gauche 18-year-old I interviewed a band for my fanzine, and asked them all what their favourite song was. The drummer replied “Life on Mars”, and was incredulous when I had to ask who it was by. A couple of years later I decided to properly investigate Bowie. I knew he was a cultural behemoth, a chameleon, and I knew he’d worn a bad shirt and danced with Mick Jagger when I was a kid, but beyond that I hadn’t a clue. His catalogue was remastered and reissued on CD at about the same time (1999) which was serendipitous, and I picked up a handful of his 70s albums – Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, Heroes, and Low.

Ever since then I periodically binge on Bowie, not out of adoration or affection but out of curiosity; I want to get him, to understand what his significance and genius is. Sure, there are songs from across his catalogue that I enjoy (and plenty of them), and even some that I’d profess to love, but I always feel like I’m observing and attempting to comprehend rather than being excited or nourished by his music.

And Low is the album that I have most wanted to love, that I’ve spent most time thinking about, listening to, trying to get to grips with. It’s his running-away album, where he escapes (or tries to) from LA, from drugs, from stardom; his first album done as himself rather than as a character (maybe), the first of the Berlin Trilogy (even through most of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger wasn’t actually recorded in Berlin), a truly experimental record in that the songs are the result of experiments much of the time. It’s the Bowie album that ought to be catnip to me, but I’ve spent more than a decade not quite getting it.

This year I’ve spent more time with Low than ever before, and finally, after reading Hugo Wilcken’s 33 & 1/3 book on the album, I think I’ve finally cracked it. Certainly, knowing more about the context that brought Low into being – the drug-chaos of Station to Station (Bowie: “I know it was recorded in LA because I read it was”), the idea that Low was a realisation of the destructive behaviour patterns Bowie had become entrenched in, a documentation of his physical escape to another place (side 1), and then an exploration of his “self” in that place (side 2) – opened Low up to me in a way that just listening to it in a vacuum, decades after its release, never quite had.

Learning about the dynamics of the album’s recording was informative too; the importance of the way Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar and David Bowie worked together (Eno as collaborator, not producer; Bowie as conductor and composer rather than “song” “writer”, perhaps), made the songs structure and sound make more sense – the long passages without vocals, the way side 1 is more like glimpses of songs than full songs, the R’n’B rhythm section, crazy synthesizers, metallic guitars. It’s not right to call the second side ‘ambient’ – the instrumentals there have more going on than true ambient music, and whilst they lack the vatic beauty of Eno’s most sublimely minimal work, they’re imbued with more emotion (if confusion is an emotion).

In many ways Low is similar to Another Green World (which came out two years before), but where Eno’s record is pastoral and rural, Bowie’s is arguably cultural, urban. Of course it’s not quite as simplistic as that, because nothing ever is, but Low is definitely a record about interiors – of buildings and cities and ones’ own mind – whilst Another Green World describes landscapes. (Ironically, Another Green World was largely recorded in central London, whilst much of Low was produced in the French countryside.)

Low sounds stranger, deeper, more affecting and more groundbreaking to me as time passes. It seems to predict a huge amount of postpunk and new wave, music that sprang up, according to historiography, in the wake of the punk revolution that came to wash away the indulgence of 70s superstars like Bowie. But between Low and Tom’s choice on the same evening, we were left pondering if punk was really as necessary, and revolutionary, as we’re told it was?

Tom Listened: As Nick has suggested, Low rewards a measured approach and definitely requires a careful listen. This is head music of the highest order and the more I’ve learnt about Bowie’s intentions with regard to Low, the better it has sounded. Listening at record club, the instrumentals at the end of the album really shone – there is so much more going on than I realised and I am keen to immerse myself in them some more. I guess this is a problem I have with CDs – the last few songs on an album get played far less often than the initial tracks. I listen to vinyl side by side, very rarely lifting the needle half way through. Sure, I could alter the way I listen to CDs…but for some reason I find it very hard to skip to a track that is two thirds the way through and start there. I digress…getting back to Low, a fabulous album, in my book just a notch below Station to Staion in the Bowie discography but wonderful just the same.

Rob listened: I missed the boat when it came to Bowie. By the time I was switching on to music the airwaves were full of ‘Modern Love’ and ‘China Girl’. I already knew I wasn’t interested in Phil Collins, so why would I bother with Bowie? None of my friends at school, college or university were into Bowie so whilst I was exposed to the Beatles, Beach Boys, Velvet Underground, T-Rex, Hendrix and Nick Drake, no-one ever pressed a Bowie album into my hands and the boat slowly sailed away.

I’ve tried to go back to him. I own ‘Low’ and the three albums that followed it. They’re okay. ‘Low’ certainly sounded better at DRC than when I’ve listened to it half-heartedly previously. Still, it’s cold music, at least to my touch. I find much to be impressed by, much to admire, but little to spark a fire in me and little to engage other than, through familiarity, the singles. Perhaps that’s a clear signal that I just need to give him more time. Perhaps i’m just six months behind Nick, as I’m sure I am in so many ways. For now, however, I really don’t think I get enough from Bowie to bother trying much more. I understand his influence, his boldness, his at times unbridled creativity but I just don’t care for his music enough. This makes me a philistine. Whatever, I’ll live. For now i’m with Alan Partridge.

Interviewer: “Who’s your favourite artist?”
Partridge: “David Bowie.”
Interviewer: “Oh yeah? What’s your favourite album?”
Partridge: “Erm… David Bowie’s Greatest Hits?”

As for punk and it’s perceived ‘necessity’ or lack of (which seems to have been an undeclared theme of the evening) it’s a false debate. It happened. It was influential in its own way. Much of the music we love wouldn’t have been the same without it, much perhaps would. If you’re happy to trace the influence of the Beatles (or Bowie or whoever) and claim, quite correctly, all sorts of influence for them, then you can’t just nominate other bits of musical and cultural history and decide that everything would be the same if they hadn’t happened.

Graham listened: Like Rob, when I was starting to discover alternative/indie music, Bowie appeared to me to be wholly mainstream/corporate. I’ve always viewed him with some suspicion and questioned whether his chameleon like changes are driven by his art or clever commercial marketing. I’ve never been able to get my head round the way his music can span such a breadth of style and quality (to my ears anyway). Not that he’s bothered but I don’t trust him. My angst has just been compounded by ‘Let’s Dance’ coming on the radio. I’m therefore really annoyed that this was such a surprising and great listen.

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