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: 16 of 25
In theory, complete and utter sincerity should seem desirable. Instead, it’s an uncomfortable proposition to shoulder, especially for poets and songwriters. When feelings are presented at their most naked, there’s nothing to hide behind: nothing artificial to lean into, no irony to break the tension. Heart-on-sleeve writing can be courageous purely in its existence, but it can all-too-easily collapse into the polar pitfalls of being either overly basic or overly elaborate. The words are expected to retain the intensity of original feeling without simply resembling slapdash stream-of-consciousness. Braving such territory in sung verse can be even more intimidating: everything hinges not only on the words themselves, but in the delivery thereof. Huge, heartfelt ballads are generally associated with ostentatious bluster, but at their core, they represent a tremendous gamble: with all chips on the table, every single line or couplet must hold its place in the chain, lest the whole thing break into pieces. If the material fails to convince at any point, the artist’s emotional integrity appears compromised; a disastrous result that stings all the more for the highly personal nature of the piece.
Partway through St. Vincent’s headline performance at Green Man Festival in 2015, Annie Clark gave a lengthy (and occasionally bewildering) speech, into which she smuggled the observation that “it’s so much braver to admit that you love something than to say that you hate it”. While the rest of her words are largely gone from memory (except for a hilarious gaff about Greggs “steak burgers”), that particular truism has continued to percolate in my mind. Transparent expressions of love put one in a vulnerable position. When it’s clear that you hold something dear, it can be hurtful for somebody else to refute it (and by extension, yourself). This applies when defending somebody else, and doubly so when standing by your own thoughts or creations.
Listening to his sole completed album, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jeff Buckley couldn’t possibly have suffered from such concerns: throughout Grace, Buckley sings from the depths of his soul without so much as a flicker of self-doubt. Grace is not a record that sounds fragile (at least not in the same sense as For Emma, Forever Ago and its peers) but it is uncommonly intimate, the words poured straight from the heart with no discernible filter of irony or pretense. Even when revisiting past treasures such as ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ or Nina Simone’s ‘Lilac Wine’, Buckley fills their compositional vessels with an emotional charge that is entirely his own; his fervent croon making their well-worn sentiments new again. In no small part, this is down to his astonishing voice, blessed as he was with the kind of swooping range that so many troubadours dream of. Equally, by the time of Grace, Buckley had developed a precise control over his vocals, his fiery caterwauling tempered by finesse and timing. His feelings may sound raw, but his style was far from unpolished.
As is often the case for the reception of so many heart-on-sleeve songwriters (especially those with a taste for the theatrical), there are plenty of listeners who are turned off by Buckley’s style, but that’s not for his work’s lack of sincerity. Grace is an album so thoroughly open-chested that it is worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the output of artists Buckley himself worshipped – Simone, Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday – as a work of pre-eminent emotional intensity. Its ten songs are sharply drawn from defiance, angst, and soul-baring declarations of love which verge on hallowing. Even listening to the album’s best-known song – the oft-celebrated cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (which Buckley was actually drawn to after hearing John Cale’s own rendition) – proves a staggeringly intimate experience. Buckley and producer Andy Wallace present the song as unhurried, hushed, and spacious, with its few details rendered finely. The notes of Buckley’s guitar flicker like candles in the dark, his voice ascending from a dusty stool to scrape cathedral-sized heights. The emotion driving the song can be heard through every breath, and it never once sounds affected or disingenuous.
In his own songs, Buckley pulls off even the most impossible of sentiments thanks to the very same sincerity. “I never stepped on the cracks ’cause I thought I’d hurt my mother,” he sighs during ‘So Real’ – the kind of lyric that would attract adjectives such as “drippy” were it not for Buckley’s sheer commitment to the part. On the opus ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’, he builds from “my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder” to “she’s the tear that hangs inside my soul forever”, without faltering once. Around these peaks and valleys of romantic ruin, Grace’s edges are darkened like singed parchment paper. The “white horses” of ‘Mojo Pin’ are a torch-song cousin to Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’ of the following year, whereas ‘Dream Brother’ is a warning in the face of a friend’s temptation to self-destruct.
Buckley naturally holds the spotlight throughout Grace, but his bandmates are pushed to miracles in their attempts to match him, and sweet Jesus, the sound is just blissful. Listening to ‘Last Goodbye’ is like sending your ears on a four-and-a-half minute trip to Heaven. His subject matter is as old as time, but Buckley wrings fresh pain from an end-of-the-line dialogue with cut-glass phrases, while surrounded by tiny musical gracenotes. “This is our last embrace,” he asserts, and one of Karl Berger’s most gorgeous string melodies sails in to dovetail with the impossibly sharp pang, Buckley’s stretching ever so slightly to ask “must I dream and always see your face?” It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, so tiny in the breadth of the full album, but the effect is matched time and time again. ‘Grace’ itself shifts from jangly beauty to an explosive kick against the eventual dying of the light; a notion that would of course prove to be devastatingly timely. And yet it transcends its context and still sounds spirited and full of promise two decades after Buckley’s death: the performances are full of vim and gusto, and that hair-raising crescendo is a potent demonstration of the electricity preserved in the fibres of the album.
It’s dispiriting that to this day, the vaults are still being pilfered by music executives hoping to squeeze more lucrative posthumous releases from Buckley’s slim catalogue of work. This year’s You & I is a disheartening example of offcuts and demos cobbled together for the sake of capital at the cost of mystique. While arguably valid as insights into Buckley’s creative trajectory, many of the works dredged up following his death (aside from the more rounded productions lining Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk) show the artist at his most inconsistent, before he was able to fully realise the power of each recording. As such, Buckley’s less successful (and occasionally risky) endeavours have been canonised, at the risk of tarnishing his legacy.
And yet in spite of these blemishes, Buckley’s artistic immortality was confirmed long ago, thanks to the transcendence of what was completed on his own terms. Grace is certainly a tragic reminder of a talent lost too soon, but it carries within it so much life and fire, its emotions articulated with piercing sincerity that time has sharpened rather than blunted. In the span of its fifty minutes, not a single note rings false.