The new (and, it seems, final) David Bowie album, Blackstar (get it from Amazon), is superficially less of a conventional rock record than its predecessor, 2013’s impressive The Next Day (reviewed here). This starts with the personnel. Rather than employ players from his former touring band or previous albums, the singer brought in a group of New York-based jazz musicians: saxophonist Donny McCaslin, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Giuliana. They weren’t selected individually; they’re McCaslin’s band, and can be heard on his 2012 album Casting for Gravity, as well as its follow-up, 2015’s Fast Future. (Lefebvre and Giuliana also appeared on the saxophonist’s 2010 disc, Perpetual Motion.) Guitarist Ben Monder, who makes the most of a few appearances on Blackstar, recorded a pair of albums with McCaslin, Soar and In Pursuit, in 2006 and 2007. Although articles published in the run-up to the album’s release offered a lot of praise for Lindner, whose multiple keyboards provide much of the music’s structure, it’s easy to imagine Bowie and McCaslin having had a lot to say to each other in the studio, given that the saxophone is a uniquely vocal instrument—and one Bowie also played.
That said, the Bowie/McCaslin interactions on Blackstar, though they do occur, are mostly not on the energy level of Iggy Pop‘s exhortations to Steve Mackay on the Stooges‘ Fun House; the saxophonist is (with one notable exception) there to provide atmosphere, not catapult the songs into some sort of free jazz/avant rock frenzy. Getting raucous and shouty was of no interest to Bowie at this point (if it ever had been). He’d become a dignified sexagenarian, content to sway slowly in front of a band that sounds like it’s making music for a play. (Some songs from Blackstar pop up in Lazarus, the off-Broadway musical with an all-Bowie soundtrack currently running in New York.)
The album opens with its 10-minute title track, which is also its weirdest and best song. It’s two songs intertwined, but in a much less clumsy way than, say, Megadeth‘s “Holy Wars/The Punishment Due”; the transitions from one section to the next, and back to the first, are relatively seamless and make logical sense. It begins with electro-ish zaps, hums and pulses, and drums that sound programmed; McCaslin mostly murmurs in the background, but periodically emerges for a short solo and some echoey hooting, like a bird calling across water. The stretch in the middle where the title phrase occurs has a loose-but-steady groove—and horn charts—not unlike something from D’Angelo‘s Black Messiah. And when the melody from the beginning of the song returns, it’s laid atop that same funk groove, unifying the piece into a seamless, artful whole.
“Lazarus,” the second-longest track on Blackstar at 6:23, begins with a bass line that sounds borrowed from Peter Hook, and drums nearly as dry and artificial as those on Joy Division‘s Closer. But Ben Monder‘s guitar, which doesn’t arrive until the one-minute mark, shadowing Bowie’s vocal, is literally a burst of static, clanging out blues chords that seem to be destroying the microphone that’s recording them, like something from an early ’90s Tom Waits song.
McCaslin steps to the forefront several times on the album. He’s the first “voice” heard on the second track, “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” and the song lacks a traditional structure—Bowie sings the first verse, which is followed not by a chorus, but by a saxophone solo. After the second verse, McCaslin’s second solo is freer and more aggressive, chewing on jagged phrases and unleashing long screaming notes. The solo he takes at the end of the song, after the third verse, comes closest to the Iggy Pop/Steve Mackay dynamic described above, Bowie actually shouting “Whoo!” as the saxophonist erupts. (Did David Bowie ever shout “Whoo!” in a song before?)
The re-recording of “Sue (or in a Season of Crime),” which Bowie first tracked with Maria Schneider‘s orchestra in 2014, is a fascinating amalgam of seemingly incompatible elements. The melody he’s singing (if there is one; it’s almost like he’s trying to come up with one as he goes) has nothing to do with the riff Monder is playing, or the drum ‘n’ bass rhythm Giuliana is hammering out, and McCaslin wanders in and out at will. But it all comes together into something operatic and compelling.
Not everything here is great. Pulling lyrics from A Clockwork Orange in 2016 is vaguely embarrassing, even for Bowie, whose lyrics have frequently been nonsensical (by design). And the programmed rhythm and whooshing synths on the closing track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” are pedestrian. McCaslin’s playing, soaked in reverb and tucked in the background, sounds like it belongs on Iggy Pop‘s Blah-Blah-Blah, which Bowie produced. Only Monder’s snarlingly shredtastic guitar, and a distant, sorrowful harmonica, salvage the track.
Even the weak parts fit into what’s an astonishingly cohesive album, though. Even more than the instrumentation or the players, that’s what relates this album to jazz. Jazz albums aren’t really meant to be heard as collections of discrete tracks, the way pop albums are. Mostly because individual pieces are so rarely pulled out and released as singles, but also because jazz artists frequently treat the album as a vehicle to explore a theory or concept for 40 minutes or an hour. So you put the record on and you ride along with it, all the music blending together into a broader statement. Blackstar works like that—it’s only seven tracks, it’s only 41 minutes, sit down and listen to it all. It’s worth it.
Stream David Bowie‘s Blackstar, and Donny McCaslin‘s Fast Future, Casting for Gravity, and Perpetual Motion, on Spotify: