David Bowie new album Blackstar, review: A Bowie desperate to break with the past

Bowie’s back – again – but his forthcoming album takes him in a strange new direction

Usually, singers become more mainstream as they age, their catalogue more likely to be expanded via the Great American Songbook than personal inspiration.

But on his 69th birthday early in January, David Bowie releases the most extreme album of his entire career: Blackstar is as far as he's strayed from pop. 

On “Girl Loves Me”, the brooding horn shadings offer ominous accompaniment to Bowie's quirky delivery of a cipher-song incorporating elements of the Nadsat vocabulary of A Clockwork Orange and the gay code-language polari, while the 10-minute title track sketches an execution ritual amid a miasmic, Middle-Eastern wash of strings and scrabbling sax.

Elsewhere, there's an oceanic melancholy to the moody, cinematic “Lazarus”, in which the alien played by Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth considers his purgatorial situation while fog-like sax swirls around his fugitive presence. 

Both “'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” are frantic, bustling whirls of avant-garde, banshee sax improvisation and drumming, while Bowie croons about deathly portents and desire: they're like footnotes to the transitional experiments of “Station to Station”, but with less potent melodies, and less interest in pleasing forms. 

Although the intro vamp of “Dollar Days” offers a more congenial rhythmic base, the amorphously mooning sax blurs things enough for Bowie to sound like a man adrift in events he desperately needs to control. “I'm trying to,” he sings, “I'm dying to.” Or is that “I'm dying, too”? – a query that lingers as “I Can't Give Everything Away” closes the album with a satisfying climax of freely flowing sax and the album's sole guitar break. 

It's a finale that suggests a Bowie desperate to break with the past, but acknowledging it'll always be with him – however hard he tries here.

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