David Bowie doesn’t like looking back down memory lane in heritage rock docs. Instead, he delivers strange, serpentine albums like Blackstar with both eyes set firmly on the future
There’s a reason why David Bowie failed to appear on Five Years, the 2013 BBC documentary chronicling his remarkable career. The 69-year-old is, as the NME recently claimed, “positively allergic to the idea of heritage rock.” He simply isn’t a man to look back down memory lane. Well, sort of. His 2013 album The Next Day was touted as a comeback, boasting cover art inspired by the famous sleeve for 1977’s Heroes with a white square obscuring Bowie’s visage.
Another sly reference to his past pops up on his newest album Blackstar, his twenty-fifth record. ‘Girl Loves Me’ features lyrics clotted with Polari gay slang and the Nadsat parlance of the droogs of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, forever a preoccupation of Bowie’s; it seemingly recycles the cut-up lyric technique he used for much of his mid-70s material.
But, by and large, that’s Blackstar’s only neat reference to the past. The rest of the album is a stunning, serpentine lunge towards the future. Sombre saxophone wheezes and wafts around the spellbinding title track, Bowie’s quivering, vulnerable vocals delivering a bleak doomsday portent: “On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile.”
The narcotic shifts in mood and texture within the song perfectly reflect Blackstar’s superbly ambiguous nature. Observant Bowie fans might detect some traces of the wired mania of 1976’s Station to Station in the sudden attack of guitar and shrieking electronics on ‘Lazarus’, albeit slowed down to a crawl as warm purling keys and mellow sax come in like a quiet breeze. But still it sounds like nothing else, a tune you want to totally immerse yourself in. Bowie’s tremulous vocals commanding a beguiling storm of hushed jazz-rock. It’s all so beautifully somnolent, you barely notice Bowie’s striking lyrics: “I was living like a king, then I used up all my money,” he sighs, “I was looking for your ass.”
At its most thrilling, Blackstar confirms that Bowie is the master of reinvention, even when it concerns the task of reinventing his own songs—the spectacular re-recorded versions of 2014’s ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ and ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’.