Review: David Bowie looks far beyond pop on jazz-inspired ‘Blackstar’


There’s something delightfully perverse about the fact that David Bowie waited until he was 69 to release what’s being described as his first jazz album.

It was at that age, too, when veteran rock stars who include Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney took up with big bands or reached for the Great American Songbook in an effort to demonstrate their taste and hard-won stature. Even Bob Dylan got in on the act last year with “Shadows in the Night,” his lovely (if desolate) tribute to Frank Sinatra.

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So when you hear that Bowie hooked up with a New York saxophonist and his crew for “Blackstar,” out Friday, you think perhaps that Bowie has joined the club -- that after cycling through countless styles and personas over his half-century career, he’s finally become a finger-snapping crooner with Count Basie on his mind.

Ah, no.

As fierce and unsettling -- and sometimes as beautiful -- as anything in Bowie’s one-of-a-kind catalog, “Blackstar” looks to jazz not for tunes or signifiers but for a proud sense of sonic freedom. If anything, it views taste and maturity with suspicion -- and thus shares about as much with your typical rocker-doing-jazz record as the singer’s trippy new off-Broadway musical, “Lazarus,” does with “Les Miz.”

The album’s intensity shouldn’t come as a surprise. In early 2013, after 10 years of quiet, Bowie suddenly reemerged with “The Next Day,” a jolt of vivid guitar rock that openly recalled his classic work from the 1970s. But where “The Next Day” showed he could still do pop economy, “Blackstar” emphasizes a different Bowie attribute: His willingness to pursue an idea well beyond the constraints of verse-chorus-verse.

At nearly 10 minutes long, the opening title track veers between a creeping minor-key groove and a funky strut layered with woozy saxophone tones from Donny McCaslin, whose killer quartet serves as Bowie’s backing band. The demented punk-doo-wop number “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” winds up to a climax in which you can hear Bowie audibly exhorting McCaslin to play harder.

And then there’s “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” a grimy, propulsive remake of a song that hinted at Bowie’s new direction when it appeared as a kind of orchestral fever dream on his 2014 retrospective, “Nothing Has Changed.”


The singer’s trusted producer, Tony Visconti, has said that Kendrick Lamar’s sprawling “To Pimp a Butterfly” was an influence on “Blackstar,” and you can hear that in “Girl Loves Me,” which rides a clattering hip-hop beat, as well as “Lazarus,” a mesmerizing slow jam that guitarist Ben Monder keeps rupturing with jabs of noise.

A timeline of David Bowie’s studio releases

Throughout the album, Bowie is in remarkably nimble shape as a singer, moaning like a ghoul in the title track, barking raggedly in “Girl Loves Me,” then drifting up to float over the delicate thrum of “Dollar Days,” a pretty, mid-tempo ballad that comes as close as anything here to the idea of Bowie as supper-club smoothie.

What exactly is he using these wild, varied sounds to communicate? That depends on which of Bowie’s confidantes you ask. (The singer hasn’t explained himself in an interview in years.) McCaslin recently told Rolling Stone that “Blackstar,” which mentions “the day of execution,” was inspired by the Islamic State, though Visconti said he hadn’t heard that.

Other songs toss out scattered thoughts about death and celebrity, topics Bowie was also pondering on “The Next Day.” Occasionally, a concrete image will arrive amid the high-flown philosophizing, as in “Lazarus,” where he mentions dropping his cellphone.

But in a way those suggestions of the everyday only make the music seem more mysterious -- and Bowie even less a part of the show-biz realm in which legends his age behave a certain way.


Twitter: @mikaelwood