Blackstar is itself the title of the opening track of Master Bowie's last studio outing, built around two core chords which are almost instantly identifiable with an Eastern, Arabic or Flamenco template. Through nine minutes 57 seconds it rumbles balefully on, a touch of Frippertronics in Ben Monder’s guitar, some wild flute here, a bit of sax there, Tony Visconti strings. There is too a sly echo of the spirit of Low on the first of these haunted corridors that are the tracks of Blackstar.
Tis Pity She’s A Whore follows – borrowing its title from John Ford’s classic mid-seventeenth century tragedy – built on a dense sonic bed, over-topped by pulsating, excitable sax. It races along like China Girl, except it’s not in fact much like China Girl in the end. Turn it to full volume and dance your way around it in your bedsit next Saturday night before you go out.
Lazarus begins on a prophetic note: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen, /Everybody knows me now, “ Bowie sings in a voice which hasn’t suffered much in terms of passion and commitment, although an excess of nicotine has cut its power somewhat.
Then we get the single Sue (Or in A Season of Crime), whose music was co-composed with the American jazz musician Maria Schneider.(By the way, some of Schneider’s output otherwise is too bland for real jazz, but nobody says that, she is highly respected.)
Sue has guitar feedback on top of grunge, ambient sounds and a sense of melodic cut-up and dislocation. In truth, it echoes the kind of sonic anarchy you would discern in the sophisticated end of glam rock over 40 years ago. One associates that demented approach not so much with the slew of albums which Bowie issued in the mid-seventies - Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs - but rather with Roxy Music’s eponymous first album, released June 16 1972, for the record.
And who was the long-haired space-age druid behind such sonic but well-timed anarchy? One Brian Eno in fact, who, after he left Roxy, would go on to collaborate very usefully indeed with Bowie. But then again, maybe the Velvet Underground started all that appealing raucousness.
But back to the album. Girl Loves Me comes in a kind of staggered rhythm, a mid-tempo thing that some of the time returns to that two-chord sequence of Blackstar, but with more layered harmonies and vocals at play.
Dollar Days begins with smoochy sax, as though a romantic ballad from Sade were about to begin, but it has the kind of Mick Ronson-style guitar sound that doesn’t tend to make it much on to Sade productions. It's quite a poignant song, a thing of modest beauty. I Can’t Give Everything Away concludes the album, a blithe thing that romps breezily to the close.
In conclusion, Blackstar is not much about catchy melodies, as if the need for hit singles had gone at this stage. But there will indeed be many who will listen attentively, and many who will hang on every note, and long for more from the Thin White Duke. A very fine swansong.