I can’t remember exactly when during 2015 that I heard that David Bowie was writing a play called “Lazarus” with four new songs in it but I didn’t investigate it too closely. I assumed that these were for the cast to perform and would not necessarily constitute new Bowie performances, since he was not acting in the play. That the play was based on “The Man Who Fell To Earth” was interesting to hear. I had owned the Criterion laserdisc of that film in the director’s cut for many years [mea culpa for forgetting to mention that – among other Bowie film roles I’d seen – in this personal history-slash-timeline] but I distinctly remember not paying too much attention to this news. I thought if it’s not a new Bowie album, then I’ll just ignore it. It’s not like I can just pop up to NYC and take in a matinee.
As of November of last year, I could no longer ignore it. A new video appeared for the 9:59 title track and news of the album to follow began to filter out. A Bowie-fan co-worker watched the video so I got to see and hear it [or at least part of it]. It was pretty unusual, and it seemed to have more than a whiff of Scott Walker, though “★” [as it was called] managed to rise above the more obvious shoplifting of the previous album’s “Heat.” It was said that the album would drop on Bowie’s 69th birthday, January 9th, 2016. Bowie was still produced by Tony Visconti, but the band on this record was an all-new lineup of jazz players… intriguing. While I had waited a long while to get “The Next Day,” I felt as though I should not wait to buy a title for once, and I resolved to buy “★” after work on the day of release. If they released another DLX edition with a bonus disc 6 months later, “oh well,” I thought. History has acquitted my decision… in spades.
David Bowie: Blackstar US CD 
- ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore
- Sue [Or In A Season Of Crime]
- Girl Loves Me
- Dollar Days
- I Can’t Give Everything Away
On early plays that weekend, the haunting title track seared its way into my consciousness. The eastern modalities of the song’s first almost four minutes pitted skittering drums versus subtle synth washes and delicate flutes and noir sax as a dramatic background for Bowie’s deliberately weak, high register vocal. Which sang of death and execution. Even on first listen, the foreboding sense of imminent death struck this listener from the word “start.” The awkward, intentionally clumsy segue, nearly four minutes into the long track when the cut shifted from foreboding Eastern monktrance into western pop music was jarring on first, and every listen.
It was as if a top 40 track from the early 70s suddenly crowded the muezzin out of his space in the Minaret as he was calling the faithful to pray. It felt like an intrusion. That the new “movement” of the song was as musically unrelated to the introduction as possible was surprising, but the lyrics still concerned death. As Bowie’s backing vocals came to riff on variations of “blackstar” [“wandering star,” “porn star” etc.] throughout the song, the music bed mutated from an airy ballad to greasier R+B climes, thanks to the sax of Donny McCaslin, who would come to dominate the melodic development of this album in the role that usually, went to a guitarist with Bowie.
Then, as the song progressed, the second movement segued fluidly, this time, back to the opening motif for a few more minutes of that to act as a coda before the song’s end. The vast difference in how these two segues were handled was perhaps the most fascinating thing about the makeup of the song. The first time it happened, it was so completely jarring and yet the second time one is barely aware that a massive shift in tone and sound had occurred until it was all but over and done with. Then, the final minute of the song becomes very compelling as the drumbeat disintegrated and the underlying drone proceeded to flatline the track as interstellar radio transmissions provided a steady influx of random notes until the song’s cold ending at 9:57. To these ears, it sounds exactly like the first 15 seconds of the first [and best] King Crimson song, “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Why 9:57? Well, Bowie wanted to release it as a single on iTunes and, as we now know, time was running out for him. Reaction to “★” would be almost the only feedback he would get on this work.
In the intro to “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” there were the sounds of Bowie taking a few hesitant breaths before the song really got under way. It’s a rare thing for Bowie to add foley effects to his album but he’s done it before. For years I wondered what the sounds that bookended “Scary Monsters” were and only recently did I discover that it was the sounds of a studio tape machine being loaded and started at the beginning and the sounds of the tape coming off of the reel at the album’s end. The rhythm track to this number was strongly redolent of “You’ve Been Around,” from “Black Tie – White Noise.” The frantic sax of McCaslin in that context managed to echo the Lester Bowie trumpet work from that song as well. It sounded like unfinished business from the never wasteful Bowie. The subtle synth work here that consisted of a few jabs of notes low in the music bed was typical for the album where it would be the horns that pushed all of the melodic invention. And let it be said that with a jazz ensemble in tow, there was plenty of that to go around.