Album of the Year
Everybody experiences ★ differently. Naturally, there is consensus to be found in the obvious places, where criticisms overlap in the adulation and recognition of particular aspects of the album. But David Bowie and his music made such a personal impression on each listener: his presence was so huge, so totemic, meaning so much to so many in different ways, that his final work – and how his death irrevocably factors into it – affects its audience with myriad permutations. As such, we can only approach ★ with our own individual perspectives. There is so often a general temptation to give an artist too much credit in thinking that they have specifically planned and engineered audience reactions from the start, but in truth, most are simply smart enough to know how much space to leave in their work. Bowie was such an artist, and ★ is no less forward-thinking than his other masterpieces.
I am writing this piece exactly a year on from the man’s death, and I can remember the strangely vertiginous reaction I felt when the news reached me. Losing Bowie seemed unthinkable, more so than any other cultural icon. Even when he wasn’t present at the forefront of culture (or present at all, such as the lengthy period of silence preceding The Next Day), he still felt like an unconquerable and indispensable part of the world we understood. We relied on him, even if we didn’t directly acknowledge it. From the announcement of his death, throughout the entirety of 2016, I struggled to get past it, and specifically, I couldn’t get past ★. There have been other albums whose circumstances of release have irrevocably altered how they are heard, and 2016 alone seemed to offer more than its fair share (You Want it Darker, Skeleton Tree, HOPELESSNESS). But ★ is singular in its effect.
Trying to fully grasp that Bowie knew he was dying during the album’s creation is a challenge. For one thing, the energy alone that this undertaking must have demanded is mind-boggling to consider, and beyond this there is the haunting matter of how Bowie approached his looming mortality and channeled it into his music. Self-aware references to his own state and outright farewells poke out of the album with each listen, and some of the additional coincidences of its lyrics are just too much to process (“where the fuck did Monday go?”, we all gasped along with ‘Girl Loves Me’ on the 11th January). It’s too significant to dismiss the fact that ★ faces down death, but in pursuing this intense artistic vision, Bowie sounded reinvigorated to a degree unheard since his 1970s zenith.
Recruiting Donny McCaslin and a team of boundary-trampling jazz musicians yielded dazzling collaborative results that would have blown minds even if the context of the album was of little note. The music of ★ is magisterial and adventurous: a restless and excited leap into bold territory that pays dividends for the attentive listener. The assembled group complement Bowie’s focus perfectly, nailing an intensity and kinetic force that is guided with precision by the steady hands of Tony Visconti. I get goosebumps at every bump and stab of ‘Lazarus’ alone: the tremble in Bowie’s voice as he cries “look up here, man / I’m in danger”, the slicing guitars that punctuate the verses. Most powerful of all is the dramatic, terrifying ascension of McCaslin’s saxophone, relentlessly building to a feverish apex before a dizzying tumble back to darkness. If we choose to understand ★ as an exploration of death, then ‘Lazarus’ is its gravest dispatch.
But in a beautiful subversion of conventional expectations, Bowie never once sounds maudlin or self-pitying. Even in staring down death, he exhibits that characteristic playfulness that ran through even his most avant-garde outings. The unsettling moods of ★ are counterbalanced with Bowie’s nose-thumbing glee and occasional lapses into pure whimsy. “I’m the Great, I am!” he brags delightfully during the title track, slipping a few wisecracks into the song’s mantra as he goes (“I’m not a gangster”, “I’m not a flam star”, “I’m not a porn star”). It alludes to the zest for life and music that powered ★, and by God, it makes for wonderful listening. Teaming up with old and new faces alike one more time was a clear source of excitement for Bowie, and his exaltation to work alongside such talents is palpable on the magnificent ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’. (Apologies, but I have to break from pseudo-professionalism for a second. Fuck me, what a song this is.) The track is irrepressibly alive: Mark Guiliana’s pounding propulsion, the increasingly chaotic squalls of McCaslin’s sax, those gorgeous, brief twinkles of keys that give the verses a starry-eyed wonder. And then there are the lyrics: a jumble of weird, funny-dark imagery (“Black struck the kiss / She kept my cock”) before Bowie abandons words altogether and just screams in exhilaration.
The album’s moody centre is adventurous in a different fashion: the frantic, heavy groove of ‘Sue (In a Season of Crime)’ and the intoxicatingly sinister nonsense of ‘Girl Loves Me’ bear witness further to the passion Bowie poured into his last studio efforts, before ‘Dollar Days’ finally brings ★ to its stunningly emotional conclusion. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is the perfect ending to an album, and to a life’s work. There will surely be more songs exhumed and released in the years to come (as ‘No Plan’ was only a few days ago), but ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is Bowie’s final farewell, curated by the man himself. A beautiful, tender and brilliant work of songwriting, it earns its beaming, unfussy sentimentality as Bowie throws everything into his vocal performance, his rallying partners giving ★ its final, triumphant push towards the stars. And then it – and Bowie – is gone.
For all that ★ is filled with life, its subject is death, and across the album, Bowie confronts it with various attitudes: with fear, with defiance, with humour. Above all, however, he meets it with the same spirit of adventure that was the constant throughout his career, whether the results were adored, panned, or shrugged off. It’s testament not just to Bowie’s artistry, but to his own strength and personality that his final work matches the vigour of his very finest albums. We all view it differently, and for me personally, ★ is more than a masterpiece, and occupies a wholly unique place in the canon of recorded music.
It may only have been a year since ★ was released, but I have no doubt that it will continue to resonate as powerfully through the coming decades as it does currently. No matter the milieu, in times of joy, strife, optimism, and need, I will always lean on the music and the mythos of David Bowie. The man himself may have left the mortal world, but we need never say goodbye to the eternal art he gifted it. In his life and works, wherever he went and whatever he did, Bowie was always our spaceman, our adventurer, our great explorer of sound, style, life and more. Our Blackstar.
“Ain’t that just like me?”
My Spin on Masterworks: 23 of 25
Sign o’ the Times
Warner Bros, 1987
At the time of writing this piece, 2016 is finally creaking to a close, and like millions of others, I’m hoping that December 31st will serve as a firm door slam to one of the shittiest years in living memory. The long-term consequences of its most damaging upsets will likely prove to be increasingly bizarre and frightening in the years to come, but when 2017 hits, please just let the tumult die down for a while as we try to process what the hell just happened.
Peppering the cavalcade of horrors – global crises and tragedies, the unremarked and the unavoidable alike – so many generation-defying heroes of the past half-century slipped away, with periods of mourning becoming alarmingly regular. Crushingly, an uncommonly substantial number of those lost were true icons, the likes of whom it’s hard to imagine being rivalled in this age of flash-in-the-pan success stories. (You can practically hear David Bowie sniggering at modern fame in the title track to the monolithic Blackstar.) These weren’t just familiar faces or celebrities past their prime: they were totemic figures of inspiration who moved in their own orbit, and in doing so brought inspiration, solace, pleasure, and solidarity to millions. Their absence has been sorely felt, even if their brightest days were behind them during their final years. Yet many – even those whose productivity was in decline of late – still felt like vital presences on this Earth: lodestars whose very existence was a dependable source of happiness. Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2016, and ponder: who would want to imagine a world without Bowie, or Cohen, or Prince?
If the sudden headlines heralding the passing of Bowie were dislocating at the year’s outset, the loss of Prince Rogers Nelson in April was barely comprehensible. The tragic circumstances surrounding his death can be found in greater detail and with broader commentary elsewhere, but for now it’s worth remembering what he gifted to the world in his heyday. Even on this side of the millennium, Prince’s creative force was staggering. His final records may have lacked the irresistibility of his mid-80s winning streak, but he continued to prove his capacity for sharp hooks and intriguing songwriting, not to mention mindblowing live shows that could still spark the kind of widespread feverish excitement that few living performers could rival. In the wake of the tragic news, however, it was most natural for listeners (those old and new) to pore through the classic albums in his discography: the most direct way to celebrate the momentous achievements of an insuppressibly creative man. Personally, I locked my ears inside Sign o’ the Times for days on end, and was repeatedly struck by its vitality, its effervescence, and the sheer majesty of its musical design.
Prince’s years working with The Revolution were arguably the most lucrative of his career, and they certainly gave him the wherewithal to let his musicianship flourish. For his ninth studio record, he went it alone, detaching from his stalwart bandmates to take on even greater autonomy in the studio. It was a strange form of liberation (on record, the Revolution never seemed to cramp his style or sound), but there’s a sense of unbridled energy that permeates Sign o’ the Times; the sound of Prince stretching his wings and soaring wherever he saw fit in his words and music. Conversely, there’s less pomp and sparkle present here than there is on the album’s immediate predecessors; no showstoppers in the Purple Rain mould or ubiquitous singles like those found of 1999. Instead, this is an extended sojourn in which Prince is guided by his own whims, and operating at the peak of his powers, the result is nothing short of masterful: pop music at its most potent and assured.
The Sign o’ the Times that the world is now familiar with was condensed and consolidated from a triple-album Prince was working on following the disbanding of the Revolution. Material shelved from other projects (including “lost albums” Dream Factory and Camille) found a home on the final cut, but while the sixteen songs housed herein are eccentric and varied in style, the gleam of the daz is never compromised. For all its diversity, every song on Sign o’ the Times sounds at home, in this inclusive double-disc party that fuses styles with such élan that Prince makes it sound miraculously easy. Double albums are far from extinct, and the past decade has hosted several sublime works from artists whose conceptual ambitions and charisma suits the project (The ArchAndroid, The Suburbs). Even so, there’s something even more wondrous about double albums from decades past. By and large, they don’t reflect a pursuit of artistic credence inasmuch as they capture a freeing of inhibitions: a chance for musicians to revel in the sprawl: no neat contours, just an exploration of one cool idea after another. The Beatles takes listeners on a joyride through four strange brains, plucking melodies as easy as daisies while still setting listeners reeling with abrasive wig-outs and lyrics that veered from politically savvy to solvent-eroded. This is the double-album as a funhouse for creativity, with the results wilfully broad and unusual. Prince pulled off the same trick with Sign o’ the Times, but instead of forays into the avant-garde, his pop nous was consistently on-point.
Every corner of this album is crammed with earworms, and polished in that bombastic 80s sheen that has seen the album celebrated as one of the decade’s definitive works. This is a spectacular record to lose oneself inside: a world in which R&B, funk, soul, dance and even psychedelia coalesce into a dazzling whole. One of pop music’s key attributes is that it sounds so effortlessly simple, but close listening to Sign o’ the Times reveals Prince’s dedication to and intuitive knowledge of the craft. His staggering musical gifts are on display throughout, as well as his ear for the unexpected. The brief guitar coda of ‘Forever in My Life’ is unfailingly refreshing on every listen, likewise the drunken keys that flutter in during ‘U Got the Look’, or the taut, flawless build of ‘Strange Relationship’. Such was the power of Prince during this period, and the double-album format found him at leisure to explore whatever styles and ideas came to his fancy. Pick any sequence of songs and you’ll hear an artist pinballing between styles with revelatory skill. ‘The Cross’ stamps its way heavenward as it churns from a power ballad into an ecstatic drone, before ‘It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night’ captures a street carnival at full tilt. The soulful slow jam of ‘Adore’ ends things on a breathless high, and even if it’s a world away from ‘Sign o’ the Times’ itself in terms of topic and aesthetic, it fits as a snug bookend to an album of vivid technicolour.
There are many successful popstars who devote themselves to their work with utmost solemnity, but the best contenders are the ones unafraid of being playful. Sign o’ the Times is a wonderful album, not least because Prince was unafraid of incorporating his sillier ideas into the mix. His strange humour was as integral to his cultural character as his sensuality or fashion credentials. On this record in particular, Prince’s many sides are exposed; he shifts from one mood to another with tangible ecstasy. So it is that ‘Starfish & Coffee’ sits comfortably between two lascivious funk odes to bonking without resembling a sonic gooseberry. The title track takes a sweeping state-of-the-nation stance, lamenting the excesses and tragedies of the era in macro and micro; two songs later, Prince affects a petulant whine and spouts gleeful nonsense (“don’t wait for your neighbour / green eggs and ham!”) over a vault-rumbling beat for ‘Housequake’. Prince’s career was built upon one man playing many parts, and Sign o’ the Times can be heard as a showcase-in-miniature of his talents. It’s too much to claim that any one of Prince’s albums could adequately be cited as his definitive work, but it’s this one which comes closest.
At its core, Sign o’ the Times thrives on the charisma of its auteur. Prince has arguably made more accomplished start-to-finish records, but this is a double-disc whirl through his imagination at its most unbridled, and it makes for a fantastic trip (not to mention a terrifically catchy one). Here is Prince at his peak, showcasing all sides of his personality as well as demonstrating his frankly flabbergasting musicianship across sixteen slabs of gold. This is music from an artist with towering ambition and little in the way of inhibitions, sounding cooler than you could ever hope to be, even at its goofiest. And in an age when “you turn on the telly and every other channel is tellin’ you somebody died”, Sign o’ the Times offers seventy-nine minutes of vivacity, inviting us to play in the sunshine, dance the quake, set our minds free – at least for a while. When we know that hard times are coming, it can be comforting to know that at least for now, it’s gonna be a beautiful night.