That's pretty freaky, Bowie
NOTE: This post was written about 12 hours before I heard the news of David Bowie's death. Of course, the new album takes on quite a new and sad dimension that I could not have imagined a few hours ago. Battling cancer the last 18 months, Bowie must have known that he was not long for this world while making this record. It's a surreal piece of news. I'm leaving this piece up as it is and going to scratch my head and listen to some David Bowie. Rest in peace you strange glorious man.
The passing of time is never more obvious to me than when I compare the relationship I once had with music to now. I once spent a lot of time every week listening to new albums, making lists, and posting about them in forums. And as strange as it is to think about it, the phrase 'back in my day' is one of those cliches that, in this realm, has begun to emerge as an earnest – and not ironic – thought. And one thing that I now know is that it's impossible to judge how much the landscape of indie music has changed put against how much I myself have just lost my dedication to it. And the artists that I used to listen to with fervor, and many of them are still active, have begun to make the kind of music which is good but not great – the kind of phenomenon which I used to be able to detect in the oeuvre of bands that had already come and gone before I was alive. There are those who in my mind have kept up the good fight. I seem to fall for any new music Nick Cave dreams up, and Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom have each put out a recent, beautiful record. But almost nothing has the kind of urgent listen-ability to it that seemed to hold me fast for whole weeks and months at a time in my late teens and early twenties. To some extent this must be a problem with me; to some extent the magic of a life-changing record is that you find it at a time when your life actually can be changed by a record. Still, I'm happy to be somewhat crotchety about it too. There was a certain grace and excitement in the world of indie music in the late nineties and early aughts that does not seem to exist in the same way now. For a person who loves the album as a medium, and songwriting, and interesting experiments with acoustic and electronic sounds, I feel lucky to have been a teenager when I was. I enjoyed more fulfillment of what my personal criteria of good music is than if I had been born ten years later. I don't mind that I can't prove it.
The new kinds of thrills come when exceptions to this bleak rule arise. And while I had been looking expectantly at the artists from the recent past to do this, from out of some dark corner came the familiar voice of a much older Sensei. David Bowie's Blackstar is really an exceptional record. It might even be a great record which can hold its own against the many great things he did many decades ago. Time will tell whether this is jumping the gun; I can't say for certain that I will, one year from now, have the same feeling about it. But on purely creative grounds, he has obviously done something new, important, and with a respect for the most elusive thing an older artist can achieve: a real new persuasive step in the continuum of their life's work.
I don't want to write a full-blown review of the album. I'll just say here that Bowie has managed to make it feel like a classic record in a contemporary way. His lyrics are as mysterious and amusing as in the 60s and 70s, although not as light. He uses the saxophone and other woodwinds in a dignified, persuasive way that I never see anymore, and probably more skillfully than he ever deployed them in his heyday. And at 69 his voice is so, so good. The moodiness of the record is dark in quite a modern way. It's as though Ziggy Stardust has come back after some long and unmentionably grim adventures. The title track is also the opener, and it takes up one fourth of the record's running time (which is a relatively short forty minutes). A friend of mine mentioned it's somewhat like Station to Station in this way, which I think is quite right, and the parallels to that excellent record may go deeper. Here's the track called Blackstar:
There is a unique place in musical heaven for artists that age well. Dylan gets credit for honestly saying – as he did once to Ed Bradley – that he knows he will never write a song as good as he did when he was young; although he still has managed to have periods of renewal and an occasional very good record. There are others too from the golden era of popular rock music – Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and maybe Tom Waits most of all – who, if they aren't what they once were, still have had good showings into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s. In the next generation Kate Bush, the aforementioned Nick Cave, and others have shown signs of being interesting in their old age. And Scott Walker, who arranged the ultimate reverse-sellout as an artist and is making the strangest music of his life at age 73, is a unique example of the interesting things that happen when good musicians get old. Bowie admires the later output of Walker, and in many ways Blackstar is a more listenable cousin of Walker's strange soundscapes.
I think maybe more than anyone mentioned above, Bowie has consistently put out solid records in his old age. Or at least he has always seemed like the most likely candidate to use his advanced years as an asset, and one day release something that is as dignified, creative, and enjoyable as when the world was seeing him for the first time. This might be the record that does that. It's not as flashy as his earlier output, and maybe not as ambitious, but it might just be as good in terms of creative vision. There's a line from Chesterton which says that we don't tell fairytales because we believe apples are really silver; we just say they're silver in order to remember a little of how thrilling it was when we first learned they were red. Getting out of the rut of one's former glories, and coming up with a new way to look at an old thing, is probably the hardest task in the life of a good artist. When it happens it should be celebrated as a holiday.