Sunday, December 04, 2016

David Bowie's Black Year

"That was patrol; this is the war."
- David Bowie, 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore

Even before we knew what kind of a year this was going to be, David Bowie's death cast a long shadow. That's partly why I've waited this long to offer some critical thoughts on Blackstar, his last album, and can now include additional words on the other Bowie-related releases that 2016 has given us.


There was a lot of well-deserved astonishment, from both insiders and fans, about how Bowie had orchestrated his end. And it is true that if anyone's demise could be seen has part of an overall, lifelong art project, it would be Bowie's. But two facts also remain: Blackstar will live far beyond those elevated thoughts - which give it a hell of an emotional obstacle course to run in the minds of concerned listeners - and Bowie wasn't quite done. There are rumors of unfinished songs, including one called When Things Go Bad, and possibly an album's worth of sketches,  even beyond the three tracks just released as part of the original cast recording of Lazarus, the musical theater piece that also occupied Bowie during his last years. 

Part of the fun of being a Bowie fan, especially later in his career, is finding connections, both sonic and thematic, between albums that sound wildly different on their faces. Blackstar is no exception and after a few listens I began tracing its relationship to Station To Station (which seems to grow in stature every year), 1. Outside, and Earthling. The fact that those three albums were made over a 20 year period shows just how deep a well Bowie was drawing from when he started Blackstar. 

Station To Station is interesting to think about in this context because of the slight echo of beginning with a long, multi-part song based on mysterious quasi-religious themes, then following up with shorter songs and ending with a gorgeous ballad. The title tracks of both albums also trade in myth-making, with the first describing the Bowie-narrator as the Thin White Duke and the second having Bowie state, in heavily processed vocals: "I'm a Blackstar." If so inclined, you can also play to your heart's content with the yin-yang, matter and antimatter of the opposing white and black imagery. 

Station To Station also represents the solidifying of one of Bowie's great rhythm sections, Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar), George Murray (bass), and Dennis Davis (drums), who would remain a unit over four more crucial albums and two world tours. Alomar was from the world of funk, soul, and dance music and Murray and Davis were both experienced in jazz and funk. While the three of them, along with everyone else involved, were obviously huge contributors to the resulting music, a quick look at their post-Bowie careers leaves no doubt as to who was in charge. But it also points out that Blackstar was not the first time that he pulled in musicians from outside of rock to fill out his palette of musical colors.

While 1. Outside was made with old friends Brian Eno (producer, electronics), Reeves Gabrels (guitar) and Mike Garson (piano), Sterling Campbell (drums), Carlos Alomar, etc., the album was actually assembled from 20-minute jams (known as the Leon Suites), which sound like nothing else in Bowie's canon. Some of the jazzier moments embedded in those long, dark pieces somewhat presage the sound of Blackstar. On the finished album, the song A Small Plot Of Land gives a little taste of what I'm talking about. In fact, Blackstar collaborator Donny McCaslin released his own version of Plot this past October - more on that below.

On Blackstar, in addition to trusty producer Tony Visconti, Bowie worked with an all-new group of musicians, the avant jazz quintet led by sax wizard McCaslin, a group that has been making a name for themselves over the last few years. While we'll never know if this collaboration would have continued beyond Blackstar, it's notable that, rather than picking and choosing musicians like the master bricoleur he was, Bowie here corralled what was already a tight unit to bring his demos to life. This could have been a matter of expedience: rather than giving a group time to gel, he could hit the ground running. 

He was ready to go when they hit the studio in any case. While he never talked about it (mainly because he stopped giving interviews) remarks by Visconti and other collaborators from The Next Day, his 2013 comeback album, and Blackstar, have revealed that Bowie had become a master home-recorder over the years. From bass lines to drum patterns to guitar parts, Bowie often came to the studio with highly detailed schematics mapping out how he wanted the song to be arranged and performed. In the case of Lazarus, the extraordinary third song on Blackstar, Visconti and crew determined there was no way to replicate the gloriously twisted fuzzy-sharp guitar sound Bowie concocted for the demo so they just extracted it whole cloth and laid it into the final take - which was the second take (read it and weep, studio perfectionists). Visconti also deserves credit for his expertise not only in capturing the heft of the band's sound but also in the way he structured things, each verse building on the last to dramatic and tantalizing effect. 

Reading between the lines of drummer Mark Giuliana's track-by-track breakdown, Bowie's drum programming still showed the influence of drum'n'bass, the short-lived genre that he made such effective use of on Earthling. Nothing sounds dated on Blackstar, however, which is a tribute to Giuliani's effectiveness as an interpreter of Bowie's rhythmic ideas and his ability to always remain in the energy of the moment.

That energy is furious on Blackstar, too, which is one of the "livest" albums Bowie ever made - indeed, one of the most spontaneous of the year. Working with jazz guys is probably part of that, yes, but is also down to Bowie's unbelievable vitality. Listen to the intake of breath that precedes the slamming rhythms of the second song, 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, and the shrieks and whoops during the ending - it's as if Bowie is giving us his life force preserved in wax, or a vial of his breath to hang around your neck. If you can't take in some of that lifeforce and feel the thrill of it, I recommend you pay closer attention - we should all try to live that vividly.

Listening closely will also allow you to enjoy the lyrics, which are probably Bowie's most outrageous since Cracked Actor in 1973. From the "When she punched  me like a dude," to mentions of Bowie's cock, this is what creative freedom sounds like. The fact that he's resonating with a bloody and oft-bowdlerized 17th century play about incest is also an argument for feeding your art by being well-read. You can get an idea of Bowie's home recording skills by seeking out the original version of this song, released as a b-side in 2014. It's fascinating and stranger sounding - but it lacks the athleticism of the Blackstar version, where Bowie rides the band like he's breaking in a wild stallion. 

Pity leads straight into the brooding introduction to Lazarus, which already sounds like a standard at this point. Obviously, the opening lines ("Look up here, I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen/I've got drama can't be stolen/Everybody knows me now) make expert use of Bazinaian doubling*, but they're also perfectly crafted, damned compelling songwriting, each line given a polished weight. That continues throughout the song, too, wonderfully accompanied by the band's dynamic performance. I expect this song will be covered often - but good luck with that guitar sound!

Like Pity, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), is a re-recording of a song which was first released in 2014. The earlier version was a one-off made with the Maria Schneider big band and was the first hint that Bowie was on his way somewhere new. The second version is stripped down and tense, Bowie's plangent tenor floating over the drum'n'bass rhythms, Ben Monder's barbed wire guitar, and Jason Lindner's cloudy keyboards. McCaslin adds atmospheric woodwinds, lending a touch of dread to the lyrics, which depict a deadly breakup - this one might have made Iman nervous. There's a rattling energy throughout, driven by Giuliana and bassist Tim Lefebvre, and it ends, boldly, in a glorious onslaught of feedback and amplifier buzz, dropping us from dreams back into the room where Bowie & Co. made the song. 

Bowie used to open his shows with Wendy Carlos's switched-on Beethoven from Stanley Kubrick's unforgettable film of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. Turns out he was a lifelong fan, singing some of the lyrics of Girl Loves Me in Nadsat, Burgess's futuristic Russian-based slang. Part of the lyrics are also in Polari (or Piccadilly Palare, as Morrissey would have it), an impenetrable slang used by actors, showmen, sailors, and the gay underground in Britain. This enigmatic move is a perfect foil for the queasy stomp of a song, but it's not arbitrary. While it's hard to know what exactly what he's singing about at all times, the sense of keeping extraordinary pain at bay is crystal clear. Then you get to the crowning line in standard English, which may in fact deserve the award for lyric of the year: "Where the fuck did Monday go?"

I don't know about you, but I've been quoting it since the first time I heard it, starting with January 11th when I learned of Bowie's death. Great artists are in tune with the unheard pulse of the world so it's no surprise that Bowie bequeathed us the perfect phrase for this benighted year when it had barely even begun. It's also further evidence of how vertiginously Bowie rode the razor's edge of the personal vs. the universal, with that same phrase possibly referring to days lost to chemo fog and painkillers. An artist of Bowie's genius never did anything arbitrarily - all the linguistic play in Girl Loves Me sets up layers of distance between his pen and the pain he was writing about. Another reported influence on Blackstar was Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, from which I believe Bowie took a license to be as lyrically dense as he wanted, likely delighting in the thought of his words being parsed alongside Lamar's on Genius.

Bowie was also a master of restraint, never adding something to a song "just because." Having McCaslin lay back and provide only atmosphere on both Sue and Girl Loves Me was a wise choice. This avoids "sax fatigue," which is my only caveat about Blackstar. McCaslin has monster technique and a distinctive sound but the structure of his solos grows a little predictable over the course of the album, each climb to the upper register existing more on its own plane rather than in the organic matter of the song. 

In any case, McCaslin outdoes himself on the plaintive Dollar Days, soulfully sketching alongside the opening chords, playing a perfect solo, and almost duetting with Bowie over the out-chorus. This was the only song Bowie didn't demo, playing it to the group on an acoustic guitar (hope they recorded that) before they developed the version on the album. The lyrics are superficially simple, getting the most out of the double meaning of lines like "I'm dying to (too)" and "If I never see the English evergreens I'm running to, it's nothing to me," which could refer to both death metaphorically and the fact that he'll never see his country of birth again. Bowie's singing is almost unbearably beautiful, seeming to float by without effort.

A touch of Bowie's drum machine program segues into I Can't Give Everything Away, soon blanketed by Jason Lindner's warm analog synths. A wailing harmonica calls back to A New Career In A New Town, an instrumental from Low, perhaps a reference to the fact that whatever happened next, Bowie was already walking untrodden ground. Monder's guitar at the end of the song also ties back to Robert Fripp's work on earlier songs like It's No Game (Part 1) and Heroes, enhancing the reflective quality of the song. As a young man, Bowie often described himself as feeling distant from human feeling, a robot or a bit of an iceman, and this song could partly be seen as an apology for all the withholding he did in his life, hiding under layers of masks and personas, his "own little corporation of characters," as he said in 1975. In the second verse he sings "Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That's the message that I sent," which could be an invitation to look back over his career and reinterpret any refusal as an embrace.

I continue to believe that Bowie was essentially not a confessional songwriter, throwing his lot in with the transformational power of art to filter the world and create something outside of yourself. Bowie was probably all too familiar with the "strange feeling" Tim Buckley talked about in a song from 1969 (when they were both tangle-haired folkies), which "won't let go" and "happens every time I give you more than what I have." Even so, there is a directness of emotion on the last two songs of Blackstar that feels brave and new. Not only did he know not much time was left for him, he also hadn't given an interview or performed in public for a decade or more. Maybe knowing he wouldn't be obligated to talk to anyone about these songs freed him up to be a little more exposed.

All art is illusion, however, and in the end the deceptive simplicity of Dollar Days and I Can't Give Everything Away demonstrate a master at work, guiding us on a journey of self-exploration as mind-expanding as his previous journeys into the cosmos. "I want to be an impact on myself," he once said, "I'd much rather take chances than stay safe." Bowie takes many chances on Blackstar, not least on the opaque title track, which is art-rock at its artiest. Even with the poppy middle section, the song never quite becomes familiar. It's black hole deep, with literary and religious references we'll be examining for years. The video is equally compelling, as is the one for Lazarus, both of which showed Bowie at full strength as a visual and performing artist. It's all par for the course for Bowie's final statement, where he brilliantly wields new tools for maximum impact on all of us, if not on himself - that, we'll never know. Some things should always remain a mystery.

*This is from Andre Bazin's theory of film, where information about an actor that's external to the performance informs how we experience that performance. I wrote more about this in my review of The Next Day.

Beyond Blackstar

Bowie's busy last years included the creation of Lazarus, an Off-Broadway musical based both on his back catalog and the character he played in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Although the show goes on in London, the New York run sold out in seconds so I can't comment on the the project as a theatrical experience. But now we have the original cast recording, which was recorded near the end of the staging in New York - and on the same day the cast heard about Bowie's death. That fact, with its faint whiff of special pleading, is not enough to save the album, which for the most part does not stand on its own.

While there are some good ideas, such as the bluesy touch arranger Henry Hey gives to Lazarus, there's almost nothing added to any of the songs. Occasionally there is much detracted, as on the rhythmically wayward and emotionally inconsistent version of Changes, sung by Cristin Milioti, or the uncomprehending assay of Life On Mars? by Sophia Anne Caruso, who also sounds totally out of her depth in This Is Not America and No Plan. Some of the recent songs hold up better, like Where Are We Now?, Dirty Boys, Love Is Lost and Valentine's Day. The last three are sung by Michael Esper, who has a nice, unaffected style and seems to be connecting with the words.

Michael C. Hall (who displayed impressive iceman tendencies himself on Dexter) shows real potential as a singer, with a lot of range and power. But he has trouble maintaining a through-line in these complex songs, often starting in one place and switching styles without good reason. As an actor, he's a good singer, but you never forget that he's acting, which was one of Bowie's great tricks. For example, was Bowie acting when he yelled "Shut up!" at Robert Fripp at the end of It's No Game (Part 1)? Likely yes, but he was acting in the moment; on this new version, Hall also yells "Shut up!" but he's acting out a moment - and that makes all the difference. What had been thrilling in Bowie's version becomes slightly cringe-worthy here.

As a playlist, Lazarus is an interesting prism through which to view Bowie's catalog, blending several songs from The Next Day with classics and slightly less-known songs like This Is Not America, which was a one-off collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny for the movie The Falcon and the Snowman in 1985 and the great Absolute Beginners, another film song from 1986. However, without a synopsis in the booklet, there's no clue as to why they picked these songs or the sequence, or why the album includes a bizarrely edited version of the original recording of Sound and Vision, which is profoundly unsatisfying without context.

The best track is Charlie Pollock's take on The Man Who Sold The World, which finally enshrines the haunting electronica version of the song Bowie developed in the 90's (Hey takes credit for the arrangement - oy). It's Pollock's only solo and he is completely convincing, creating one of the best Bowie covers in recent memory. I can also praise the overall musicianship, which is extremely good especially when you consider the breadth of territory they cover (still: Lazarus 1, guitarists 0).

One thing I don't appreciate is the mercenary approach the Bowie camp took in marketing Lazarus, making purchase the bar to entry to hearing the three other new songs Bowie wrote for the play, which he recorded with the Blackstar crew during the album sessions. Fortunately, I can say that they are more than worth it. No Plan is yet another tremendous ballad, with astonishing singing from Bowie - it's one of his best performances since Wild Is The Wind, maintaining the melody's tension even at the slow tempo. It has a touch of exoticism, with lyrics a son of the silent age or Major Tom himself would love: "Here, there's no music here/I'm lost in streams of sound/Here, am I nowhere now?/No plan."

Killing A Little Time is a brutal prog rocker, Bowie's grim vocal supported by a pummeling bass line, gnarly guitar and modal horns from McCaslin. "I'm falling, man," Bowie sings in the chorus, "I'm choking, man, I'm fading, man, just killing a little time." Time better watch its back. When I Met You is slightly more minor than those two songs, reminiscent of songs like Dancing Out In Space from The Next Day. Either way, it's a fun, well-constructed song, and the musicians show off their pop skills in a committed, energetic performance. If you're like me, you'll create your own deluxe edition of Blackstar by adding these three songs to a playlist with the original album. As for the rest of Lazarus, you're on your own.

Speaking of mercenary, it's hard to imagine the man himself approving of the release of Bowie Legacy a standard-form retrospective that is completely outshone by Nothing Has Changed, the two or three disc reverse-chronology that Bowie himself authorized in 2014 and which included songs from the unreleased Toy project as well as material going back to 1964. The biggest selling point they could come up with is a "2016 Mix" of Life On Mars by original producer Ken Scott, which is essentially a disaster, burying both Bowie and Mick Ronson in the strings. The word "disrespectful" comes to mind. Also, any compilation that chooses Dancing In The Street, which should be an ironic footnote by now, over the original Cat People (Putting Out Fire) single deserves to be boycotted.

Another "legacy" collection is the 12-disc set Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976), the follow up to last year's Five Years (1969-1973) set. Both of these boxes are handsomely designed, with extensive books of photos and notes, and give decent value for money if you don't have the albums or if you're looking for a sonic upgrade. The new one covers Diamond Dogs through Station To Station and includes two lagniappes: a collection of mostly unnecessary single edits and mixes (including a ghastly chopped up Station To Station - never heard that on the radio!) and a "previously unreleased album" called The Gouster.

It's a little disingenuous to call The Gouster a "lost album" as it is essentially a rough draft of Young Americans. It does contain two spectacular songs that didn't make the cut in 1975, It's Gonna Be Me and Who Can I Be Now, which were originally released on the Rykodisc reissue of Young Americans in 1991 - and I have treasured them ever since. If you're not getting the box for other reasons, these two are available individually and are well worth downloading (you can also hear them on Spotify). But the fact remains that The Gouster, without Fascination and Fame to buoy the mood and tempo, was too ballad-heavy and likely would have failed. Bowie was smart to stop the presses and rejig the thing. I'm not even sure the earlier mix of the song Young Americans would have been a hit - it's a bit softer and David Sanborne's life-giving sax is less prominent. Finally, I'm one of the few that love Bowie's universally lambasted razor-sharp take on Across The Universe, which would never have existed if The Gouster had been released.

Another album that was thought to be lost is the original soundtrack recording for The Man Who Fell To Earth, the science fiction classic Bowie starred in while working on Station To Station. While the idea of Bowie doing the soundtrack was obvious - and very appealing - he was unable to get it together (abortive sessions were deemed "substandard" by one of the participants) so a hodgepodge of sounds and songs was compiled to accompany Nicolas Roeg's vision of America as seen through alien eyes. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the master tapes were uncovered and the album was released for the first time. A huge "caveat emptor" sticker should be placed on the cover, which features a stunning photo of Bowie and some very nice typography. Let's be clear: Bowie is not on this album in any way, shape or form, not even in a line of interpolated dialog, which would have been a nice touch, in fact.

So what do we get on TMWFTE? A bit of a dog's breakfast, featuring some great tracks from Japanese prog-rocker Stomu Yamashta (all available elsewhere), an OK version of Blueberry Hill by Louis Armstrong, a couple of movements of Holst's The Planets, and many, many mostly regrettable songs and fragments cobbled together by John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas. From mediocre jazzak to fake bluegrass, what Phillips came up with (on a tight deadline, I might add) is perfectly adequate in the context of the movie, but nothing you would want to listen to outside the theater. Mick Taylor completists can hear him jam on an instrumental of Hello Mary Lou and the theme song is weirdly appealing also kind of terrible - and those are the high points. Buy the Blu-Ray instead - it's a terrific movie.

Finally, for those seeking more of Donny McCaslin, this year also saw the release of his album Beyond Now, with the same musicians from Blackstar (minus guitarist Monder). I would never deny the experience McCaslin and the other players had working with Bowie, which sounds like it was life-changing, but I might question the rationale behind this album. Featuring five originals alongside covers of songs by electronic artists Mutemath and Deadmau5 and two by Bowie, the collection will probably fully satisfy neither fans of McCaslin or Bowie. A harsher critic might accuse McCaslin of pandering.

I should say that my relationship to current jazz is a difficult one. I rarely hear anything that makes me stand up and cheer the way Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane or other greats do. The last time I reviewed a jazz album that was not a reissue was Bobby Hutcherson's Enjoy The View in 2014. Maybe I'm missing something, demanding too much progress, or hopelessly stuck in the past - it's just that I'm always seeking music that feeds me and have not been finding that sustenance in today's jazz.

So the McCaslin originals seem OK, the EDM covers are nicely atmospheric, and the version of the Low instrumental Warszawa is pretty good. The cover of A Small Plot Of Land does nothing for me, however, and I actively dislike Jeff Taylor's stentorian singing. Maybe McCaslin should have called Charlie Pollock - I want to hear him sing more Bowie! It is instructive to listen to Beyond Now in relation to Blackstar, to begin to tease apart who brought what to the table. It makes it clearer than ever how in charge Bowie was, starting with the remarkable songwriting, from which everything flowed on Blackstar. So Beyond Now is ultimately for McCaslin enthusiasts only - but I imagine others could help you find better jazz in 2016.

A Final Thought

All of these other releases clinging to the fiery tail of Bowie and Blackstar streaking through the sky will remain on the periphery, more attached to 2016 than the album itself. The final work by David Robert Jones, AKA David Bowie AKA Ziggy Stardust AKA Aladdin Sane AKA The Thin White Duke AKA ★ will go on forever, at least as long as there are people seeking succor, adventure, and connection through music. 

You may also enjoy:
David Bowie
David Bowie Is...In Chicago
David Bowie: Life On Earth

Note: The illustration above contains a still from Blackstar, a video by David Bowie, © 2015 ISO Records, under exclusive license to Columbia Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment

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