Always leave them wanting more. David Bowie knew a thing or two about show biz, where every performer wants to leave on a high note. Well, here we are, a week since he surprised us with his best record in at least 30 years—and then departed planet Earth mere days later. (I wrote this piece for Maclean's when the news broke.)
David Bowie, dead at 69, was—we now know—well aware of his mortality when he made both this and 2013’s The Next Day. That album was a direct nod to his past, both in sound, in personnel, and even the album art (the cover recycled the image on 1977’s Heroes). Here, however, he’s made a record that sounds nothing like anything else in his discography. It’s a crowning achievement on a 50-year career that altered the course of rock and pop music more times than perhaps any other artist.
Let’s be honest, however: the last 30 years of that career yielded precious few albums, or even songs, that even his biggest fans have cared to revisit. The first day I heard Blackstar, on the other hand, I played it five times in a row.
Blackstar blows up what we know of late-period Bowie. Here we see the eternal appreciator of the avant-garde bringing his love of increasingly weird Scott Walker records to a bunch of New York jazz musicians almost half his age, led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, most of whom are associated with trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf label. Drummer Mark Guiliana in particular does exemplary work here; jazz fans might know him from a duet album he made with Brad Meldau on synth. They give Bowie’s fractured incantations a muscle and vigour and exploratory splendour. It’s entirely possible that the band’s performance here is better than Bowie’s own, but the aged elegance of his distinctive croon provides the perfect anchor for this material. This is the sound of David Bowie acting his age, yet no less curious and experimental than he was in the late ’60s, before the mainstream found him.
Almost all of Bowie’s peers—certainly all of his peers who ever achieved the same commercial heights he once did—play it safer and safer as they get older. Bowie has always taken risks, for better or worse. Sometimes—many times—he has failed. Here, however, he’s triumphed, creating a masterpiece that serves as a perfect epitaph. Which is exactly the way he wanted it. (Jan. 14)
Stream: “Lazarus,” “Blackstar,” “Girl Loves Me”
David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, turned out to be one of his most popular: it’s his only album to ever hit #1 on the Billboard charts. That might have happened even had it not come out the week of his death, as unanimously positive reviews poured in immediately. Before tragedy prompted deep analysis of the album’s lyrics, most people were busy marvelling at the music and asking: who the heck is the incredible band behind Bowie, and where did they come from?
Donny McCaslin is a California-born, New York City saxophonist who plays in a band led by trumpeter Dave Douglas, who runs the Greenleaf label. McCaslin’s own band features drummer Mark Guiliana (who made a strong duo album with pianist Brad Mehldau last year), keyboardist Jason Linder and bassist Tim Lefebvre, all of whom Bowie pulled into the orbit of Blackstar.
McCaslin has 10 solo albums to his name; this one, released last March, is the first time he’s carried over one group of backing musicians from one album to the next. It was obvious to Bowie why. There is chemistry here greater than the individual players, though each are virtuosos. Linder uses electronic textures and there’s an Aphex Twin cover on here, but it’s far from avant-garde; McCaslin isn’t interested in abrasion, like the wilder exploits of John Zorn or Peter Brötzmann. There are strong melodic heads anchoring each of these tunes, and the band would be just as comfortable playing prog rock as they would jazz. If anything, Blackstar is more outré than Fast Future, if only because of expectations of the given genre.
But even if Bowie hadn’t dragged McCaslin into our orbit, a talent this big—and that refers to the whole ensemble, not just the bandleader— was bound to get our attention eventually. (Jan. 28)
Stream: “No Eyes,” “Love What is Mortal,” “54 Cymru Beats”
Or you can hear the whole album here: