The last few years have been good to fans who'd once lost hope for new David Bowie music. The 2013 album The Next Day marked an unexpected rock-heavy return after a decade-long recording hiatus. And now, on the reinvention master's 69th birthday, he's putting out his 25th studio album, Blackstar.
The LP (out Friday) was recorded with longtime producer Tony Visconti and several avant-garde New York jazz players Bowie recruited after hearing them play in a small West Village club. But the end product can't be called jazz, rock, pop or any one thing. It's a seven-song suite that calls to mind the adventurousness of the early records that pushed Bowie to music's upper echelon.
Here's a track-by-track look at Blackstar.
"Blackstar" -- The nearly-ten-minute title track opens the album with equal parts mysticism and introspection. Eerie chanting, obscure lyrics and Middle Eastern chord progressions bookend a more straightforward middle section during which Bowie sings about a character in the midst of transformation. Fans pointed out when the track was released in November that Bowie could be commenting on his own creative re-emergence.
The song could also serve as an update on the Major Tom character that's popped up in his work over the years. Whatever drives the ideas behind the song, it's the perfect sonic tone-setter for what's to come in the next six tracks. No mix of styles is repeated throughout the record, but there's always the free-wheeling saxophone of Donny McCaslin -- an instrument almost as important to Blackstar as Bowie himself -- weaving in and out.
"Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" -- The sax looms even larger, as does the driving beat, in this slightly absurd slice-of-life tune. Some of its lines bring a smirk, such as "Man, she punched me like a dude," but Bowie delivers the vocal with the drama and unpredictability that made him so singular in the '70s. He yodels and bellows, almost mimicking the out-of-control sax which which he's seemingly duetting.
"Lazarus" -- This is a previously released tune that doubles as the title song to Bowie's recent off-Broadway musical. It comes off as the most directly autobiographical of the new songs, allowing our lamenting star to ponder mortality as that ever-present sax becomes more focused and mournful. He may not be referring as much to physical death as he is talking about the point at which creativity and new ideas run out. This and the other songs, though, are evidence that Bowie hasn't lost any of his imagination.
"Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)" -- Another one that fans have heard on a previous compilation, this percussion-heavy freakout was the first track Bowie recorded with the New York jazz collective led by McCaslin. He invited the players back to make the rest of Blackstar, inspired in part by the musicians' versatility with different styles. They also helped him achieve some of the same genre-defying approaches that had defined Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, a record Bowie cited as one of the inspirations for his own new work.
"Girl Loves Me" -- I might be crazy, but I can almost pick up on a nod to Kendrick Lamar in the way Bowie sings this tune, letting his verses unfold in a rap cadence complete with line-ending raspiness reminiscent of Lamar's "U." "Girl Loves Me" is one of the catchiest of Bowie's new tracks as a result, and it also benefits from a well defined bassline and bouncy percussion.
"Dollar Days" -- "I'm dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again," Bowie croons in the chorus to the most straight-forward ballad on Blackstar. The song is also reportedly the only one he wrote with his cadre of musicians in the studio. Again, the sax's free-form wail picks up where Bowie leaves off.
"I Can't Give Everything Away" -- This is the closest thing stylistically to some of the hits Bowie had in the '80s, from the intricate beat to the let's-sway vocals. There's also a Stevie-Wonder-style harmonica solo that drifts in and out. The song makes for a gorgeous ending to an expansive and worthwhile new chapter for Bowie.