David Bowie – ★ (ISO/Columbia, 2016)
When the constantly evolving “chameleon of pop” David Bowie took a decade-long hiatus beginning in 2003, something was certainly awry. The man who released multiple albums a year for a long stretch in the 70s seemed to be content in retirement. Bowie simply was unwilling to go the route of his contemporaries, i.e. playing the greatest hits to packed arenas (a la Paul McCartney) or recording his own versions of the Great American Songbook (a la Rod Stewart). However, when news came out about David’s heart attack, it all made sense. Finally, it came into clear focus just why this incredible artist had been dormant for so long.
When he finally returned for 2013’ s The Next Day, it was a glorious return to form complete with a clever remake of the “Heroes” cover art. The album was challenging and pop-centric at the same time, but to be honest it was the calm before the storm that is ★.
With ★, released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, he blows away all notions of an interest in modern rock or pop music. While the production values are certainly state of the art, the music seems ushered in from another era, another planet even. Seven songs in 41 minutes seems like a quaint offering from the guy who would create winding concept albums but these seven offerings are constantly morphing into other shapes completely different from where they started.
Zigging where you expect it to zag, imploding when you expect it to breakthrough, ★ also works as a unified piece. An “album” from a man who has made many great “albums.” While fans of Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust may find this stuff too challenging, the album is hardly Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. “Lazarus” rides a crushing beat and throws shards or abrasive guitar under Bowie’s timeless croon, but the melody presents itself unadorned. The fact that over half of these songs go well over the five minute mark, and the fact that they never grow tiresome is a testament to David and longtime producer Tony Visconti.
Recorded at the seminal NYC punk studio The Magic Shop (chronicled on the 2014 Foo Fighter’s documentary series Sonic Highways), songs like “Lazarus,” “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” and “Girl Loves Me” have a rawness that echoes his late 70’s work with Iggy Pop. Other tracks contain wailing saxophones seemingly removed from jazz and certainly from anything resembling easy-listening.
Album closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” works a super-catchy melody (reminiscent of his 1999 hit “Thursday Child”) over a propulsive beat with Bowie sounding like a man just entering his career rather than leaving it. Bowie’s firm grasp of New York Cool, whether it be recording at The Magic Shop or having James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem play percussion, is on vivid display throughout the gorgeous ★. One of 2016’s first classic albums, this is a solid piece of work from a restless innovator. – Andrew Martin Derer, January 8, 2016
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