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David Bowie – ★

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David Bowie - BlackstarNew Bowie album. For years that meant bollocks all.

LOCATION <DOESN’T MATTER, REALLY> TIME <xx111994>

I remember a mate saying to me back in 1994, on turning up on a Saturday night, “Here’s the new Bowie album”. “NEW Bowie album? It’s the fucking ’90s. That’s not a good selling point. Just play some old ’70s ones, we’ll be cool”. He had the drugs, so he won the music. It was Outside. It blew the top of my head off, and then shat awesomeness so far down my spinal column I was shitting cool for a month.

It rocked so hard we went all the way to Exeter and back on a single coach fare and the kindness of strangers. Mind you, it took us two days to get back. And that was reliant on the kindness of strangers- when hitch-hiking, getting into a car and hearing an ACTUAL RECORDING of the gig you went to last night can seem like a gift from the gods. And probably is. Never been so cold. Never had such a hard hitching experience. Never had a gig quite so etched in my memory.

LOCATION <MY HOUSE> TIME <080116>

New Bowie albums’s out. See, I wouldn’t NORMALLY be that excited about a record these days, because, well, it’s the future now, and release dates are fluid, and releases are largely intangible, and hey, isn’t all the money made through live performance these days anyway? I mean, what do records actually MEAN when you don’t have sleeve art, and you don’t have a bus journey on which to memorise everything, and you don’t have THAT moment, and —

EXCEPT. Except, except. A couple of weeks ago I got an email from my co-conspirator from 1994 saying it sounds like Bowie’s back there. Haven’t checked out the track that’s online yet, because hey, it’s the future now, and the newness of stuff is fluid, and new experiences are largely intangible, and hey, isn’t it all about —

Fuck that. I remember now. And yeah, I’m NOT working today, and yeah, I DO trust this guy this time, and yeah, I really CAN swallow my pride and buy this shit on (insert name of hideous corporate music platform here) and…

Oh. Oh shit. Look at the album description. Not been paying attention. Old rock star working with a jazz band. Oops. Signs aren’t great. That sounds like laziness. Sounds like trad-jazz pop or some shit. Sounds terrible.

Too late. I hit the fucking button already!

Still. I’ve paid. I’ll find a way to love this, I’m sure.

IN THE VILLA OF ORMEN

Holy shit, two seconds in and I’m fucking sold. FUCKING. SOLD. Feels like Scott Walker‘s collaboration with Sunn0))), in that it’s RIGHT FUCKING THERE IN YOUR FACE IN THE OPENING SECONDS with the solid fucking vocal shit you want.

And that’s just the intro. I’m already battered by this shit. Blown away.

In the pub that afternoon, telling everyone “SERIOUSLY IT’S AMAZING”. A friend orders the vinyl online, either because I’ve managed to convince him how awesome it is, or just because he wants me to shut the fuck up. It’s hard to tell. I’ve said, “Two listens and I already have my favourites, I already know which song is which, it’s already THERE as a record”.

<LITERALLY EVERYWHERE, 11/01/16>

“Holy shit”, everyone says at once. “David Bowie’s dead”.

And just like that, ★ changes into something darker, something stranger, something sadder and even more awesome.

More than enough words have been written about how the album and accompanying videos were, in hindsight, prefiguring his death. Visconti himself has said that, yes, the album was a farewell gift to the world. Hooking up with a free-jazz combo to do the weirdest music you’ve done in twenty years would, for most people, be either career-defining or career-ending. In Bowie’s case, it was both.

Atmospherically, it’s closest to Outside. Outside, the album that blew me away. Outside, the album that no bastard liked at the time, or so it seemed. ★ is like Outside, but with jazz. And a spot of post-rock. And an even darker vibe. And, and this bit’s important, Bowie saying “cock” in a way nobody has ever said “cock” before. Because Bowie. On the same song, “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”, he also hits peak Bowie vocally. One iteration of the title has him sounding like he’s literally singing while grinning through clenched teeth. Which seems fitting for this album; the whole thing, the way it plays with death (his own, this time, rather than Brel‘s), the way it shifts from rock’n’roll swagger to abstract balladry to those “what the fuck even IS this?” moments —  the whole thing is grinning through clenched teeth.

“Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” is a tough listen, though ultra-rewarding. Not tough so much because of its cacophonous sax’n’drums’n’rock’n’roll set-up, though it’s probably the most experimental and “out there” track on the whole album, but because of its direct, though still oblique, references to clinics and X-rays. “I brought you home, I just said ‘home’”, as his voice cracks and one of the song’s many, many crescendos breaks over you.

There are these little moments of foreshadowing scattered throughout, most notably (and famously) on “Lazarus”, with it’s oft-quoted opener of “Look up here, I’m in Heaven”. They’re everywhere, whether all intentional or a mixture of intentional and unexpectedly ironic. “I’m trying to, I’m dying to”; “Where the fuck did Monday go?”

And perhaps most tellingly, “I can’t give everything away”, as the album closes. Because he hasn’t. He’s left us a selection of clues and allusions, the music world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle. Bowie was one of the first musicians to realise the potential of the Internet, and now he’s left it the biggest gift it could ever want in terms of theorising and arguing. There must by now have been more written in fora, blogs and comment pieces about what ★ actually means than there has been about whether Kubrick faked the moon landings or not (spoiler — he didn’t. Don’t be so bloody stupid). And that’s awesome, too. But it shouldn’t overshadow the real triumph of ★ — that it is one of the single best pieces of work Bowie released in his entire life. Definitely the best thing he’d done in twenty years. This is the kind of swan song that could break your arm.

RIP, Mr Bowie. And thanks for all the great tunes. Especially these ones.

-Justin Farrington-

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