Record Collector JANUARY 2016 - by Jamie Atkins


The prettiest star?

In terms of grand comeback gestures, 2013's The Next Day and the surprise surrounding its release was always going to be hard for David Bowie to top. Within a minute of the opening track it becomes totality apparent that this time around, the music will be doing the vast majority of the talking Looking back, The Next Day seems to function almost as a victory lap around the musical terrains that Bowie had conquered over the course of his career - plenty of it was executed perfectly well, at times it was inspired, but on reflection there wasn't much new ground covered. The interim release of singles Love Is Lost (Hello Reich mix), a collaboration with LCD Soundsystem main man James Murphy, and Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) backed with 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore seemed to suggest that something was stirring in Bowie's waters. The latter release in particular intrigued - backed by Maria Schneider's jazz ensemble, he sounded at his most questing and inspired for an absolute age.

Brilliantly, (or Blackstar to the rest of us - humour him, he's earned it) proves that rather than a curio, or a scratching of a jazzy itch, that single works as a jumping-off point for a bold new stage in a career that was built on creative about-turns. The opening title track - released as single, complete with a brilliantly creepy, odd video, despite its near ten-minute length - sets out its uncompromising stall immediately. Starting off with warm, treated strings, it lulls the listener into a false sense of security before glitchy beats kick in and Bowie intones mournfully, "In the villa of Ormen... stands a solitary candle", before emitting a wordless cry that should assuage any fears that his voice has suffered the ravages of time. Quite what a Norwegian village named after the Norse word for Serpent has anything to do with a song that appears to go on to deal with the dark side of religious fervour is anybody's guess.

The layers of synths, bleeps and tetchy beats put it in the same ballpark as much of Thom Yorke's various projects over the past decade or so. The difference here is that while Yorke often appears determined to disappear beneath the blankets of sound he creates, Bowie's uncanny gravitas and effortless sense of melody manages to lift entirely something that might initially appear uneasy listening. Halfway through, the game changes; from appearing on the verge of collapse - all discordant blasts of sax and dropped beats - emerges an impossibly youthful-sounding Bowie with a piano-led section that briefly resembles a take on Hunky Dory-era balladry before going somewhere else entirely: a claustrophobic strut over which our man gleefully implores you to "take your passport and shoes", before going full-circle.

It's a dizzying start but there's no room for respite as the new, fully realised version of 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore comes blaring into view. It's an early indication of the importance that Bowie's new collaborators would have on the album. By working with New York's finest jazz musicians - with no real background in traditional rock structures, nor respect for them - Bowie has managed to free himself from the weight of his own influence that he would have felt working with just about anybody else. In many ways the driving forces behind the songs are Tim Lefebvre's bass - while here he provides a motoric, insistent edge, elsewhere it's subtle and surprising - and Donny McCaslin's multi-tracked horns and woodwind, adding a wild, seat-of-your-pants heaviness to much of the record.

Lazarus is the first sneak peek we get of the musical of the same name in the works (allegedly containing fourteen old songs and four new; including this). Its mid-tempo groove coupled with stacks of doomy keys creating a seedy, late-night atmosphere. It's a more successful, edgy take on the adult pop of say, Heathen. Just when the listener thinks they have the measure of the song, it bursts into a sky-scraping chorus that evokes the likes of Stay. It's not long before things heat up again with the radical rerecording of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime). James Murphy's on board again, adding skittery percussion to the stabbing bass and careering horns to give the feel of having been plunged headfirst into a car-chase caper through busy streets with Bowie, seemingly egging on the chaos - it's a thrilling ride.

Next comes Girl Loves Me and the slightly unsettling moment when, at the age of sixty-eight, David Bowie suddenly develops a bit of a potty mouth. Except it's actually an odd mix of Polari, Nadsat and straight up trash talk. Over a cartoon-like electronic stomp Bowie has great fun sneering and spitting lines like "I'm sitting in the chestnut tree, who the fuck's gonna mess with me?" calling to mind MIA as much as John Lydon. It's Bowie at his impish best and would make quite a single. It's illustrative of another thing he does so well here - his embrace of technology without it ever seeming inappropriate. Whereas on Earthling for example, his dalliances with drum and bass seemed faddish and ill-fitting, here he deploys forward thinking beats and textures with great care.

Dollar Days is a piano and sax-led croon that seems to be a resignation set to song of the unlikelihood of the narrator returning to the evergreens of his homeland while declaring that he's "dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all over again". Finally, the sprightly beat of the closing I Can't Give Everything Away provides a neat counter to what is effectively an elegant, elongated coda to the album.

The Bowie that his fans love most - the unpredictable, courageous and cutting-edge enthusiast - is properly back, and while this kind of intense listening experience might not trouble the current crop of massive-selling rock stars, he's somehow a damn sight more vital than the lot of them.