The Wire MARCH 2016 - by Louise Gray


The cracked actor's curtain call is a fitting end to his stellar career.

By the time that this review is published, some of the stardust following the announcement of David Bowie's death will have settled. The makeshift shrines in London, Berlin and New York, all cities where Bowie lived and which were meaningful to his work, will have been tidied away; the publishing houses will be finishing their frantic updating of the Bowie biographies already out there. Life will return to normal and the arrangement of stars, newly collected together in the shape of the Aladdin Sane lightning flash by Belgium's MIRA Public Observatory, will continue to glimmer for future light years. But writing, right now, a few days after the release of Blackstar on January 8 and his death on January 10, it's been a strange week.

In the outpouring of tributes that has ensued, some voices have suggested that this is rock's Princess Diana moment, a sudden death provoking (to paraphrase Bowie's Five Years) all the fat-skinny people, all the tall-short people, all the nobody people, and all the somebody people, into hysteria as a way of bringing a spotlight onto their own lives, of making themselves matter, of linking themselves to the currents of the larger world. I'd disagree. Like most people, I met neither Diana nor Bowie, but he mattered to me, even if she didn't. I am old enough to remember Starman overturning my psychic world, my parents' sitting room, everything, in 1972 when an avant-queer Bowie pointed his finger directly at me from his Top Of The Pops stage and threw me, like many others, an escape route that we hadn't known we had wanted until that moment. My life is measured out by units of Bowie - there are periods where the measures are faintly inked, but they are still there, nonetheless. His death has been followed by full-scale hermeneutic scrutiny of Blackstar in the search for signification: its lyrics; its imagery; its cover; its (possible) reference to a kind of cancer lesion; its astronomical meaning; the use of the coded languages of gay Polari and A Clockwork Orange's Nadsat; the CD booklet's celestial photograph and its shiny, polished, carbonised blackness. We already had the tools at hand for these microscopic analyses: they were fashioned by what Gavin Martin, my friend and colleague from NME days, terms "all the years of Bowie growth and Bowie love".

Given the speed between Blackstar's release and its author's exit, there is an allure in this exegesis. It fakes a sense of order. it's unlikely that Bowie knew he'd die on a Sunday, and to read as prescient the line in Girl Loves Me - "Where the fuck has Monday gone?" (or its intro's ever so slight hint of New Order's Blue Monday) - is too much. Leaving aside whatever might be released from the archives, or in connection with his musical Lazarus - producer Tony Visconti states that Bowie was hoping there was time left for more recordings - it is clear that Blackstar, Bowie's twenty-fifth studio album, is a farewell, one that ties up ends and moves things on and all with a stark gravitas.

Caught up in this whirl of shock and commemoration, it's important to retain a focus on Blackstar's music. it is a fine, unnerving album. Four of its seven songs were available in various formats before this album release. Blackstar and Lazarus were released as singles within days of each other in December. Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) and 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore are rerecordings of songs previously laid down in 2014; here, they have undergone a radical deceleration that accentuates their sombre,jittery fluidity whereas the originals drew energy from a pressurised sax and untethered beats.

So just over half the album shouldn't really be a surprise - and yet it is. The cumulative effect of Blackstar is undeniably bleak. A parched, arid parting suffuses it. This is indicated most vividly in the opening title track, an epic, nine minute song that in mood, at least, puts me in mind of The Width Of A Circle in its ritualistic repetitions, two-part structure, cracked urgency and vision of an alternate world. The world in this case is imagined in Johan Renck's accompanying video, which shows a crumpled spacesuit containing a jewel-encrusted skull. We assume this to be the last iteration of Major Tom, that Space Oddity, that junkie, that Spaceboy, who now rests in the shadows of a black sun, an eclipse-lit world.

The presence (or not) of Major Tom aside, Blackstar is not a self-referential album. There is little retrospective raiding of sounds from the Bowie vaults. This is quite unlike The Next Day, 2013's surprise album, which was so stuffed with little quotes it was quite fun making mental lists of them all. Reportedly, the coded electronica of Boards Of Canada and the richly textured backing tracks of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly are cited as influences. They could be, but Blackstar has its own strong musical and rhythmical traction that delights in the tensions that it creates. its collage of jazz, electronica and an off-beat driven percussion is one that is continually spooled out and reined in by an infinitely flexible song structure, something that's so typically Bowie at his most inventive. There are bursts of musical memories all over the album: cinematic Wurlitzer keyboards represent a long, sumptuous goodbye to the musical theatre that allowed Bowie to reinvent himself over and over; a John Barry-inspired harmonica riff; long sax lines summoning up a Philly soul. The core quartet of musicians - keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, percussionist Mark Guiliana and saxophonist Donny McCaslin, picked out by Bowie after he heard them at New York's 55 Bar, work intuitively on what must have been a daunting project. They bring much to it. Bowie, too, is on superb form: his throaty vocals are hugely expressive in their range: the plangency of Blackstar is matched by the warm, multitracked harmonies of Whore or Dollar Days. The final track, in its presentation the most conventional track on the album, is I Can't Give Everything Away. It soars away on a fuel of harmonica, sax, granular synth and tremoloed guitar to an oceanic dissipation and then it's gone. And Bowie is gone, figuratively dead, then literally dead.

I remember Bowie's announcement of the end of the Ziggy Stardust era in 1973, an ending wrought at the height of that character's vampiric fame. The real Bowie slipped off stage quickly and elegantly. We see him in those last videos for Blackstar and Lazarus as the blindfolded character Button Eyes. On January 9, Button Eyes was, perhaps, simply the blind man who sees. But since then, it's hard not to see those buttons transmogrified into obols, the coins needed to pay the ferryman. Goodbye, Spaceboy.