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: 6 of 25
In 1975, David Bowie’s skyrocketing star had reached its zenith, but the man himself was approaching physical and emotional overload. Nutritionally malnourished and reeling from a snowballing cocaine addiction, Bowie’s descent into the Thin White Duke persona of the Station to Station years was tearing apart both mind and body. While his projects continued to arouse acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, Bowie was transforming into the same vampiric presence he flaunted during live outings: a skeletal, paranoid figure gradually withdrawing into his own psyche. After completing his 1976 White Light tour, Bowie fled to deepest Europe in order to escape his demons, accompanied by Iggy Pop, Coco Schwab, and eventually, his creative personnel.
After several months of soaking up the vibrant nightlife of the German capital, the teams settled in Hansa to undertake recording duties for Iggy Pop’s seminal The Idiot, but it was only after relocating to France’s Château d’Hérouville that the bulk of Bowie’s eleventh album was cut. Amid bitter divorce proceedings, the trials of kicking his drug habit, and cutting himself off from the world in which he’d been made a star, Bowie tortuously began work on new material. Almost exactly a year after the release of Station to Station on RCA, Low arrived; an album teeming with ghosts, yet ghosts which had been wrangled into something truly transcendental.
Whereas Station to Station shimmered into view through a fog of coke powder, Low awakens with the sound of a shambling engine clanking to infernal life. The crazed, stuttering thunder of ‘Speed of Life’ immediately signals a new departure for Bowie, its bold and brazen atmosphere defying lyrics as it leads the march into 38 minutes of tormented, confused, but ultimately magical noise. As with its parent album, the sonic tone of ‘Speed of Life’ is unsettling yet intoxicating, immeasurably enriched by Tony Visconti’s fizzing production; the biggest talking point of which is the Eventide Harmoniser, which worked to pitch-shift Bowie’s caterwauling and gave Dennis Davis’ gated snare drum its signature bite. It was the pioneering of such techniques which established the groundwork for the 1980s to follow, with Brian Eno’s creative assistance inspiring Bowie himself to push the envelope even further on subsequent releases.
Much of the discourse surrounding Low is mired in the tired fact that it’s a record of two distinguished halves: the “song”-oriented Side A, and the ghostly ambience of Side B. While this may be the simplest means of defining how these eleven tracks are sequenced, their chronology is more interesting to pore over when one considers them in a single sitting. While the jagged squalls of ‘Speed of Life’ are a far cry from the ashen desolation of ‘Subterraneans’, Low somehow shifts from one extreme to the other with electrifying kineticism, sounding disjointed but never messy. It’s the sound of a musical mind collapsing and expanding simultaneously, synthesising everything from funk-rock to art-pop to choral ambience.
Shortly following the album’s release, Bowie summarised his thought process once he had settled in Europe. “It was like, ‘Isn’t it great being on your own? Let’s just pull down the blinds and fuck ’em all.’ Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things. Anything else, you don’t mention – and in the end you produce Low.” The important things in this instance are confined to a mere five tracks, wherein Bowie articulates them into authentic language, and even these are fragmentary, cryptic. The remainder plays out in sound itself, where emotion bleeds through the icy synthesisers and walloping drum patterns like a heart threatening to burst through a ribcage.
Perhaps due to this more reserved aesthetic, on first listen, parts of Low sound skewed to the point of bewilderment, but this mood is one of despair veiled beneath the eccentricities of the experimentation. The jaunty ‘Sound and Vision’ is a paean to self-imposed exile, the sound of Bowie drawing those blinds and grappling with a crippling case of writer’s block. The awkward drama of ‘Be My Wife’ is stuffed with desperate, childlike pleas for companionship, and the stuttering ‘What in the World’ and ‘Breaking Glass’ both document attempts at human reconnection, through entirely disconnected means. Both find Bowie attempting to slur his way into coherent communication, but failing to grasp a humane mode of transmission. “I’m in the mood for your love!” he wails repeatedly in the former, staggering through a universe which he can seemingly no longer traverse with any semblance of charm or tact.
The opening and closing portents of Low are particularly telling. ‘Breaking Glass’ proffers an image of the Thin White Duke’s glacial conduct crumbling into psychotic mania. The snowblind sheen of Bowie’s mid-70s endeavours is shattered into a mosaic of breaking glass, spilled secrets, and dishevelled, burnt-out guitars which sting with all the ferocity of the simultaneous British punk explosion. And then, depending on how one chooses to decipher the warbles across ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Subterraneans’, the final lyric on the album arrives barely halfway through Low’s runtime: “sometimes you get so lonely”. It’s a perfect ellipsis on which to leave listeners dangling as Bowie takes off with the achingly fragile ‘A New Career in a New Town’, before the sheer majesty of ‘Warszawa’ descends to close off any chance of returning to poppier terrain. Here is real horror, real anguish, real history as channelled through Bowie’s awestruck vision of Cold War Europe: a landscape as ravaged and broken as the musician’s own body during the period.
There really is so much to dissect about Low, from its backstory to its critical reception, its influence on Bowie’s trajectory as well as the development of synth-pop as a whole. It’s wired, it’s humorous, it’s mind-bogglingly inventive and forward-thinking. But Low is also emblematic of a terrifying, isolated odyssey into the abyss. Bowie may have been well and truly fucked when making Station to Station, but it’s Low which plumbs far greater depths of desolation. In 2001, Bowie himself commented on the creative process in an interview with Uncut’s Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton. “It was a dangerous period for me,” he admitted. “Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself struggling to get well.” True, escaping to Berlin did allow Bowie time to heal, but the word “struggle” is crucial here.
Low is an album of retreat: Bowie’s retreat from the cataclysmic pressure of Western expectations, his retreat from conventional methods of songwriting, and a retreat from the demons of his own making. It could almost be considered as a retreat from humanity itself, but beneath its icy exterior, this music burns with the heat of terribly vivid emotions, too powerful to be articulated through traditional means. Low served to be the final nail in the coffin of Ziggy Stardust – as perhaps reflected on its album sleeve, Bowie had left his past behind, and he wasn’t looking back.Low 1 – Speed of Life
2 – Breaking Glass
3 – What in the World
4 – Sound and Vision
5 – Always Crashing in the Same Car
6 – Be My Wife
7 – A New Career in a New Town
8 – Warszawa
9 – Art Decade
10 – Weeping Wall 11 – Subterraneans