Crooned and wailed over a backdrop of dark jazz, spy soundtrack, and synth pad, Blackstar finds David Bowie—now old enough to be grandpa to a big chunk of the music-streaming public—at the forefront of something. Admittedly, Bowie is a one-man hall of mirrors, and anything new he does ends up reflecting what he’s tried before. Here, it’s certain Berlin outliers (“Beauty And The Beast,” “Red Sails”) and parts of the ’90s concept album Outside, plus his fascinations with Nadsat, the fictional language of A Clockwork Orange, and Scott Walker, the pop star turned avant-garde poet. But even if Bowie’s role as noir storyteller, singing in the first person of jealous losers and lowlifes, isn’t technically a reinvention, it finds him pushing a fringe aesthetic he’s only dallied with before, the result being that he seems more confident about his art than he has been in a long time.
Maybe consistency has something to do with it. Recorded in New York with a local jazz combo for a backing band, Blackstar consists of seven long-ish songs, most of them morbid, all of them suggestive of underworlds. These are spiritual, criminal, and psychosexual underworlds of the pulp imagination, seen in cut-up stories about delinquents (“Girl Loves Me,” written in Nadsat), rejected men “( Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime),” “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”), and transfiguration (“Lazarus,” “Blackstar”). A lot of the songs are sung from the point of view of the dead or the dying. Having gotten his comeback record—the very inconsistent, sometimes underwhelming The Next Day—out of the way, Bowie is now back to making music as art, and Blackstar is a concept album in everything but name.
In different hands (say, those of Scott Walker, whose morbid experiments seem to be a reference point here), an album of paranoid fragments and subterranean thoughts would be off-putting, but Bowie still has a fantastic voice and an ear for catchy hooks. Ever the interpreter, even with his own work, he belts out what his characters would mutter to themselves, drowning in bass lines and sax solos, the next life glimpsed as a swell of synth strings. Pushing his longstanding interest in theater (“Lazarus” comes from his same-titled musical, “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is a play on the 17th century tragedy ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, and so on) into soundscape, Blackstar uses music as staging and scenery, placing his dynamic voice in the context of noir atmosphere.
On “I Can’t Give Everything Away”—which features sax and guitar solos that are, respectively, too smooth and too busy to be called cool, which makes them cool, because coolness is paradoxical—he hits unexpected emotional notes by simply singing the title over and over. The nearly 10-minute title track starts funereal over skittering beats, before drifting into a pop song as though it were carried up to a cloud. On “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” driven by a sax line as insistent as paranoia, he treats the chorus as a whimper. For all its jazz accents and solos, Blackstar ends up becoming a stage for the things that first made Bowie a pop star: his incessantly catchy melodies and elastic voice. With its simple (though oblique) lyrics and endlessly repeated choruses, it’s a secret pop record submerged in the dark places of studio improvisation.