David Bowie: Blackstar (2016)
When I first heard that David Bowie had died, I was in a plane over the Pacific Ocean, stricken by an extreme bout of food poisoning. Delirious, I clambered onto United Wi-Fi only to find out about the Thin White Duke’s death in the weirdly roundabout way that news tends to be disseminated on Facebook: as a series of oblique posts whose meaning only starts to aggregate gradually and loomingly. At first, I assumed that the wealth of Bowie songs that were cropping up in my new feed, as well as the fact that Bowie seemed to be trending, were down to the release of his latest and – it turned out – last album, Blackstar, which had dropped a couple of days before I left the United States en route back to Australia. I’d planned to listen to the album when I returned home, especially since the time difference meant that it would still only be a couple of days old when I got back. Since Bowie had been on my mind, and had been so prevalent in the press, it felt right that he should be trending in this way. Even posts about a tribute concert seemed to make sense, since there had been no indication that Blackstar would break his decade-long live performance drought any more than The Next Day had in 2013. Looking back, the last time I saw Bowie perform live on television must have been around 2003, when he performed “Everyone Says Hi,” a cut from Heathen, along with “Life on Mars,” on some chat show I happened to catch while flicking between channels. At the same time, it’s not quite accurate to call that “the last time” I saw Bowie, since at that stage, I didn’t have an especially clear idea of who Bowie even was and assumed that both of the songs he performed were relatively new releases in his catalogue.
After a certain amount of time, however, Bowie’s death started to coalesce out of the Facebook response, although my warped and dehydrated mind state meant that it took a lot longer than it would have otherwise. By the same token, when I got off the plane, saw a doctor and started to come good after the worst bout of food poisoning in my life, it was hard to believe that the news about Bowie hadn’t been some lingering part of my fever dream as well. It’s my experience that fevers tends to work in much the same way as nightmares, taking things that you happen to have been thinking about and twisting them into something dark and strange. And not only had I been thinking about Blackstar over the course of the trip – anticipating it in the way that you tend to anticipate what promises to be the first eventful release of a new musical year – but one of my friends in New York had recently seen Lazarus, Bowie’s stage play, the title track of which forms the third track of Blackstar. An extremely seasoned and open-minded theatregoer, she’d been somewhat bemused by what she perceived as the “funereal” tone of Bowie’s stage music, which she described as a condensed reworking of his catalogue – plus a handful of new tracks – as a sustained dirge that riffed around his familiar images of transfiguration and resurrection, but in a considerably more sombre tone than his earlier albums. In effect, it sounded like a new, later Bowie – the latest in a long line of new Bowies – and it had inevitably coloured my anticipation of the album in advance.
In retrospect, there was something appropriate about hearing about Bowie’s demise suspended in mid-air, as well as something that made me feel especially prepared for and attuned to Blackstar when I finally heard it a couple of days ago, since this is an album which ascends towards some transfiguration that it refuses to ever quite conceptualise. In its own way, it is as momentous as the Bowie albums in which he unveils a new persona, or incarnation of himself, except that in this case the persona is never fully clarified, let alone named. In that sense, while its reach is astronomical, universal and mystical, it feels poised in the upper stratosphere more than the distant reaches of outer space, yearning at the heavens while nevertheless planting one foot firmly in the ground. To an artist who, in the last stages of his life, may have glimpsed the infinite while increasingly constricted by the corporeality of cancer, that’s a powerful and poignant place to situate an album – and, as many critics have subsequently noted, blackstar is a medical term for a particular kind of lesion that can emerge during cancer.
In part, that combination of the heavenly and quotidian is a result of the multifarious nature of the album, which, apart from the ten-minute title track and a trio of art-pop songs that close out the second half – “Girl Likes Me,” “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Anything Away” – also contains a pair of tracks from 2014 that have been thoroughly reworked – “’Tis Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)” – as well as the title track from Lazarus, as mentioned previously. However, the combination of earthly and galactic registers also feels like a conscious and deliberate act on Bowie’s part as well, as evinced in how effortlessly and elegantly the previous tracks and stage track are reworked into the whole, as well as how seamlessly the opening, title track – close to ten minutes in length – segues into the rest of the album. At no point does “Blackstar” ever feel like a standalone track, or a separate “side,” even though it is at least twice as long as every other track on the album, although most of the others do tend to sprawl out to the five-minute mark as well. In that sense, Blackstar often recalls the way in which the title track of Station to Station manages to both be a standalone, mini-masterpiece – effectively a collection of brilliant songs fused into one seamless cut – but without ever extricating itself from an album whose seamless heterogeneity – it is hard to imagine two cuts as different as “Golden Years” and “Wild is the Wind” – often feels like the basis and inspiration for Blackstar as well.
Of course, the resemblances between Blackstar and Station to Station – and that entire period of Bowie’s career – go much deeper than that. For one thing, this is the first real concept album that Bowie has recorded since the Berlin era, with the exception of 1995’s Outside, a collaboration with Brian Eno that Bowie was reportedly planning to renew and continue following the release of Blackstar. And yet where Outside is a sprawling, 19-track statement with a parallel narrative and subtitles for each tracks, Blackstar returns to the relative austerity of the Berlin era – seven tracks, each approaching something of a self-sufficient concept album in their own right, with the possible exception of the final three, which evince a more straightforward art pop impulse. Of course, Outside was itself a revision of sorts of the Berlin era, not just in terms of Bowie’s reconnection with Eno, but in terms of the return to the motifs of dystopian constriction and foreclosure that had always haunted Bowie’s music, but had never quite twisted it so experimentally as during the Berlin era, finally eliding his voice altogether, or at least reducing it to a series of inchoate rumbles and deflecting it back through the saxophone, his first instrument.
At the same time, for Bowie to revisit this period in his career is also something of a career risk. While each of Bowie’s incarnations has become legendary in its own right, there is something especially hallowed about the Berlin Era that makes it an ideal target for the kinds of classicist self-referentiality that seems to haunt so many artists in their later age, and to haunt so much artistic production at the moment generally. If anything characterises music, film and television at the moment, it’s the striving to recreate the sounds and images of earlier, supposedly better times – not in the pastichey, postmodern style of the 80s and 90s, nor in a spirit of recombination and reinvention, but more in the sense of a devotional enshrining of a spirit of creativity and a genuine sense of the new that seems more and more elusive and fragile in an era in which the concept of the future seems to be continually and perpetually forestalled (or, alternatively, in which we seem to have definitively arrived at the future envisaged by so many of the most futuristic of artists). With the exception of some of his more way-out moments in the 90s – moments that didn’t tend to cohere into sustained statements or album-length visions – the Berlin era was Bowie’s most sustained period of futurism, at least in musical terms.
While that futuristic impulse is perhaps most emphatic on Bowie’s two collaborations with Iggy Pop – The Idiot and Lust For Life – during their shared time in Berlin, it also informs the way in which is own Berlin albums – and especially Low – progressively drain his voice from his productions. You might think that a largely instrumental Bowie album was the logical conclusion of that process – something akin, say, to his 1993 soundtrack for The Buddha of Suburbia – but part of the brilliance of Low, “Heroes” and, to a lesser extent, Lodger, is that even at the most instrumental moments, Bowie’s voice never goes away. It is there as murmur, white noise, saxophone riff, and as a kind of emphatic and corrosive absence that belies the instrumentality of a purely voiceless album. It is also why an album like Station to Station, that is so emphatically vocal, can also feel like a forerunner of the Berlin albums, insofar as a performs a gradual self-evisceration of Bowie’s voice that culminates with a cover of Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” in which Bowie seems to sing himself out of existence. Only Bowie could create a cover ofSimone as great as Simone herself without seeming to detract from or disrespect Simone in the process. Whereas other white artists seem to add “black” sounds to their repertoire, Bowie often seemed determined to instead remove his whiteness, or reveal it to be an elaborate performance, in order to claim some affinity with the African-American artists he cited as influences, and nowhere is that clearer than on Station to Station’s magnificent final cut.
It feels right, then, that Blackstar – the title takes on yet another resonance – was influenced first and foremost by Kendrick Lamar’s recent magnum opus, To Pimp a Butterfly and Boards of Canada’s recent album, Tomorrow’s Harvest. As far as Boards of Canada is concerned, it’s hard to see their output existing without Bowie and Eno’s formal experimentations, but especially their most recent album, which I feel has to be the greatest of their career. Over the last half decade, there has been a movement, within electronica, towards enshrining and revisiting the greatest pioneers of the 1970s – John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, Jean-Michel Jarre, Ennio Morricone – not merely as musicians but as expansive and exuberant philosophers and technicians of the future. If Bowie hasn’t been included within this canon of futurologists, it’s only because his own style has evolved far more and encompassed far more than a Carpenter or a Moroder, with the result that the future his music envisaged has never stayed in one place or spoken through one mouthpiece for very one. Nevertheless, his electronic palettes of the 70s belong, in some sense, with these now – or newly – venerable figures, and hearing Blackstar is in some sense to realise how much he was a part of Tomorrow’s Harvest as well. At the same time, it offers Bowie a canny way to avoid the trap of self-classicising by drawing upon a contemporary band who have themselves classicised him, albeit only obliquely and somewhat incidentally. While Bowie may be part of the futuristic harvest offered by Boards of Canada, he is not the main catch, and that prevents his use of their broad electronic strokes and brooding synths on Blackstar ever feeling staid or static.
At the same time, the Kendrick Lamar influence is perhaps even more critical. Clearly, it’s there on the massive washes of jazz-inflected noise that parse Bowie’s vocals, recalling the distinctive production signatures of To Pimp a Butterfly. But it’s also there in the way in which Bowie delivers those vocals as well, since slabs of noise aren’t especially new to his music either. One of the key signatures of rap music is the way in which it jettisons the traditional relationship between voice and accompaniment, lyrics and instrumentation. Because so much of rap is based on sampling, and because rap tends to converge sampling with instrumentation, the organic relationship between voice and production tends to be somewhat skewed and splintered by rappers, especially since rap is about the only genre of mainstream popular music in which singing – in one form or another – isn’t the dominant address of the voice, even if sung samples are a critical part of the overall sound. As a result, rap has the potential to jettison both voice and instrumentation, allowing them to float, side-by-side, in a realm in which neither acts as an anchor or foundation for the other in a traditional sense. Of course, some subgenres of rap exploit this potential more than others. At one end of the spectrum, gangsta rap tends to be the most emphatic in placing the voice front and centre, while artists like J Dilla have experimented in the opposite direction, turning rap into an almost entirely instrumental genre by crafting samples and short pieces around evacuated vocal presences. In between those two extremes, jazz rap tends to be the most adept at keeping voice and production in constant interplay, to the point where the jazziness of jazz rap doesn’t finally seem to inhere in the nature of its samples so much as in this sense of the continual interpenetration and improvisation of rapper and backdrop required to maintain this sense of dynamism and flow.
Over the last half-decade, I think we’ve seen something like a revival of jazz rap, or at least the most emphatic return to a jazz rap ethos since its first flowering in the late 80s and early 90s with artists like De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest. While there have been all kinds of iteration of jazz rap along the way – just as there have been all kinds of iteration of gangsta rap, jazz rap’s doppelganger and fraternal twin – there has been a movement towards what I think of as the two key attributes of jazz rap, apart from the jazzy collapse of voice and production, figure and ground, mentioned above. First and foremost, there has been a return to a milder kind of rapping persona, as well as a concomitant subsumption of rap back into the wider melting pot of r’n’b. Of course, that has been somewhat inevitable given the extent to which hip-hop has come to shape the language of most mainstream rock over the last decade, but there have also been artists, such as Drake, D’Angelo, Janelle Monae and The Weeknd, who seem to be consciously searching for a way to incorporate rap back into a less aggressive, less gangsta aesthetic. It’s no coincidence that all three of these artists – and Lamar as their apotheosis – have some of the mildest voices in contemporary rap, voices that seem utterly inimical to the kinds of gangsta pronouncement that still pervade Kanye’s putatively post-gangsta outings all the way down to Yeezus.
To a certain kind of mindset, that mildness might seem synonymous with apathy. But precisely what makes jazz rap radical is the way that this profound fusion of voice and production into a substance without a centre and a texture without an anchor works to undercut the white fascination with the soulful black voice as a repository of African-American authenticity, sincerity and visibility. In Post-Cinematic Affect, Steven Shaviro, drawing upon Kodo Eshun, notes that it is precisely this fetish of the soulful black voice as an unmediated point of entry to subjectivity – and the corresponding idea that white people can commune with the African-American experience simply by communing with a soulful black voice – that Afrofuturism, from Detroit Techno to Missy Elliott, has been so keen to rupture and interrogate. Against the jeremiads of Kanye, then, the collective work of Drake, The Weeknd, D’Angelo, Monae, and Lamar have tended to revive the grand Afrofuturist fantasies and schemas that, in one way or another, all pervaded the work of their early 90s forebears. With Monae it is perhaps the clearest, but in all of their work this trend has become prominent: in D’Angelo’s collaborations with Q-Tip and ?uestlove on the bracing Black Messiah; in The Weeknd’s inner space fantasies; in Drake’s post-human contortions on “Hotline Bling”; and, finally, on To Pimp a Butterfly, which feels like something of an apotheosis to this moment, the bookend to Monae’s The ArchAndroid, released in 2010. That eminence is all the more striking in that Lamar’s debut album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City presented much more as a traditional rap album, just as the invocation of 70s funk – especially Sly & The Family Stone – that makes To Pimp a Butterfly so different – is something that has occurred across the board, but especially on Black Messiah, which plays as a revision of There’s a Riot Goin’ On to Lamar’s revision of Stand!
In other words, one of the few places in contemporary music where a genuinely robust vision of the future can be heard is in this recent turn towards jazz rap, with Kanye’s upcoming album SWISH appearing to pull right back from the metal edges of Yeezus in favour of this warmer and more collective sound as well, at least if the recent single “Real Friends” is anything to go by. Unlike virtually any Kanye song released in the last five years, it seems to encourage collaboration, remixing, repurposing – it feels incomplete in the best way, and Erykah Badu’s version has already become nearly as widely circulated and acclaimed as Kanye’s. It’s no surprise, then, that Bowie and producer Tony Visconti spent a great deal of their studio time listening to Lamar, nor that this is the album where Bowie’s diction comes closest to that of a rapper over the course of his entire career. Not, admittedly, in the actual delivery of his lyrics, which are more languid and languorous than at nearly any other point in his career, but in the way in which his lyrics and production seem to exist in a kind of free-floating state in which neither anchors the other, not unlike the zero gravity freefall of the ten-minute clip – a short, film really – for the title track, which is – quite extraordinarily – the first and last music clip for a Bowie track to explore outer space in any great detail.
In that sense, the album picks up where the Berlin Trilogy – and Station to Station – left off. However, it absents Bowie’s voice in a slightly different way. On Low and “Heroes”, Bowie, Visconti and Eno resorted to more or less instrumental tracks, an approach that doesn’t following through on Blackstar. Instead, Blackstar’s most memorable tracks – and especially the title track and “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which open and close the album – feel as if they have found a way to meld the instrumental and vocal aspirations of the Berlin era on a single track, which was, in some ways, what Station to Station also managed to do. While these tracks do contain regular versification and some of the most hummable choruses that Bowie has released in the new millennium, they also set up great swathes of ethereal, ebullient, esoteric musical textures between Bowie’s lines at key moments as well, giving the impression of a voice that is gradually jettisoning and detaching itself to float in some noumenal realm that is glimpsed, but never fully consummated or inhabited, over the course of the album. In that sense, it feels like something of an anti-elegiac gesture, an album that was recorded as an accompaniment of sorts to Bowie’s demise, but designed in such a way as to deflect any kind of morbid or morose mourning into just another of Bowie’s many transmutations and resurrections.
At least, that’s my response to the album, as well as to the vexed question as to how it should be read against the backdrop of Bowie’s death two days later. At a purely pragmatic level, most consumers of the album will experience it outside that brief two day window – and even if they heard some of its tracks in an earlier incarnation, or experienced the “Blackstar” single when it came out, the cumulative effect of the album is a novel experience in itself. At the same time, while Bowie undoubtedly seems to have been planning more music – including, as mentioned, a continuation of his ongoing Outside project with Eno – there is a preoccupation with death on Blackstar that makes this feel like something of a swan song. In any case, it is certainly his strongest studio album since Outside, and in many ways recapitulates the science fictional aspects of his persona that have lain dormant since that moment. For while the collaboration with Tony Visconti on Blackstar is telling – Visconti, even more than Eno, being the production architect of the Berlin period – Blackstar also forms the end of a long period of renewed collaboration with Visconti, commencing with Heathen in 2002 and moving all the way through to The Next Day in 2013 by way of Reality in 2003.
In retrospect, these three albums feel like something of an unofficial trilogy in the same way as the Berlin Trilogy, since they all witness Bowie attempting something like a classicist version of himself, a craftmanlike approach to rock that may have produced a few genuinely startling moments, such as Reality’s final track “Bring Me The Disco King,” but were not especially interested in innovation. You might say that, with Earthling and Hours, Bowie’s final two albums of the 90s, he had finally run out of new guises or disguises, especially with his experimentations with drum’n’ bass on the former. Nevertheless, there was something a little staid about his three albums of the 00s as well, if only because the sheer promiscuity and variety of his incarnations, as well as the chameleonic curiosity of his voice, renders a classicist Bowie peculiarly unconvincing. Whereas a singer like Bob Dylan had a sufficiently stable mythos to classicise on an album like 2001’s “Love & Theft”, Bowie’s mythology has meant so many things to so many people at so many different times that the version of himself that he promulgated on Heathen, Reality and The Next Day seemed hopelessly reductive: instead of managing to incorporate all of his various personae, this new and mature voice seemed unable to do credit to any of them. If anything, it was the covers on Heathen and Reality where Bowie’s slipperiness seemed visible once again – Neil Young and the Pixies on Heathen, George Harrison and Jonathan Richman on Reality – as if only the pressure to align himself with another voice could induce him to once again denature his own.
Tellingly, however, The Next Day didn’t have any covers – every track was a Bowie original. From the cover – a blotted out photo of the iconic front sleeve of “Heroes” – you’d think that Bowie had discarded this classicism and was instead aiming for another redefinition, this time of his Berlin self that had become so canonical and fashionable once again in the various electronica scenes of the early to mid 00s. And The Next Day certainly did have some innovative moments, most notably the final track, “Heat,” which in its parched, elliptical, precarious vocals, felt like it was channelling Scott Walker’s late work, thereby paving the way for the various Walkerisms threaded through Blackstar. Nevertheless, The Next Day was Bowie’s most classicist outing yet – a collection of inoffensive tracks that, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine put it on Allmusic, did nothing to diminish nor augment Bowie’s legacy. For an artist as restlessly curious and experimentalist as Bowie, that’s about the worst review you can get. Even albums like Tin Machine, Tin Machine II and Earthling, which had appeared to diminish or damage Bowie’s inviolability, had done so in an interesting way, giving you a sense that they were perhaps steps along the way to some grand new version of the Thin White Duke. More importantly, their lack of success was proof that Bowie was continuing to take risks, which gave him a certain legitimacy even if the actual dividends weren’t that great in musical terms.
The Next Day was something else entirely, however, to the point where it deserves a special and anomalous position in Bowie’s catalogue by virtue of its very anonymity and inoffensiveness. For me, there’s not a bad track on the album, but nor is there a track that really shines and sparkles on it either. When I first heard it in 2013, I didn’t exactly like or dislike it. Instead, I was bemused. I felt that I was missing something, that this wasn’t the Bowie I knew, if only because of how much it sounded like the Bowie I knew, how familiar it all was. As mentioned previously, if there’s anything that really defines our musical era, it’s the sense that any sound can be recreated and re-enjoyed in a classical, reverential and devotional way. Over the last couple of years, I’ve reaped the rewards of that as much as anyone, and not just in the realm of music – I’m as excited about the reboot of Twin Peaks as I was about the release of My Bloody Valentine’s fabled third album, and I’m sure that I’ll enjoy and dwell on it as much as I did with mbv. With The Next Day, however, this culture of simulacrum – if it can even be called that – suddenly failed to produce enjoyment or to ramify in a pleasurable way. Instead, I was left feeling deflated, unsettled, and distinctly aware that such a culture doesn’t work in the interests of an artist like Bowie.
At the same time, the virtue of the current climate is that by giving Bowie scope to release his classicist album – or the apex of his classicist trilogy – in the most emphatic manner possible, it seems to have clarified that approach as something of an artistic dead end, at least if Blackstar is anything to go by, since Blackstar is as different from The Next Day as The Next Day was from Earthling. That’s not to ignore the kinds of commonalities and continuities that necessarily hold between two adjacent albums in an artist’s career so much as to acknowledge a new restlessness, a different production texture and, once again, a recomplication of the relationship between voice and instrumentation that has always accompanied Bowie at his most experimental and curious, albeit most emphatically during the Berlin period. One of the critical ingredients is a return to electronica as a mediation between voice and backdrop; another is Bowie’s recourse to the Afrofuturist textures that have pervaded his career since the 70s. As so many recent tributes have demonstrated, Bowie was uniquely attuned to what was at stake in appropriating and establishing dialogue with African-American music, and one of the other key factors connecting Heathen, Reality and The Next Day was that this was one of the few eras in Bowie’s career when that influence – in however indirect, transmuted or mutated a form – was not especially visible. Put simply, these were amongst the whitest albums in Bowie’s discography, while not “performing” whiteness with the same hyperbole as, say, the Thin White Duke period either, and so there is something salutary about the way in which Bowie both draws upon and pays tribute to the latest wave of Afrofuturist imagination on Blackstar.
In that sense, Blackstar perhaps makes most sense as a launching-pad, a vision of a destination that is somehow preprogrammed to avoid any excessive melancholy in the event that that destination isn’t reached – or is reached by Bowie in ways that finally take him beyond the ambits of his terrestrial, musical career. When I first heard the news of his death, a whole torrent of songs rushed into my mind as ready-made elegies, but the most recurrent was “A New Career in a New Town,” the last track on the first side of Low. As the title might suggest, this is partly a track about Bowie’s move to Berlin – the most explicit track, one might say, about Berlin to emerge from the entire Berlin period. Due to its position and character on the album, it has always seemed to me to be something of an allegory of Bowie’s own metamorphoses and resurrections as well, a testament to his capacity to always return in some new and startling guise, or to return in a different way through even his most familiar and overplayed tracks, to surprise you with something you didn’t hear the first hundred times round.
For one thing, “A New Career in A New Town” occurs as the pivotal connection between the first and second sides of Low – and no Bowie album before or since has such an emphatic and auteurist distinction between its first and second sides. As any Bowie aficionado will know, the first half of Low plays more or less as a sequence of perfect polished pop songs and unfolds some of his most ebullient and tightly crafted compositions, including “Sound and Vision,” which may be my favourite of all his pop songs. Nevertheless, even to a first time listener, there are indications that this is not exactly a typical pop album. For one thing, the pop songs, while often quite conventional in their putative or potential structure, are twisted and distorted so as to disrupt the regular balance of labour between verse and chorus. Some of them, like “Breaking Glass” feel all verse, while some, like “Be My Wife,” feel all chorus. In both cases, there is a sense that the instrumentation and production is gradually eroding Bowie’s voice – and, with it, the regulation of that voice into verse and chorus – with the opening and closing tracks, “Speed of Life,” and “A New Career in a New Town”, left more or less. Leaving aside the audacity of opening a Bowie album with an instrumental track, “Speed of Life” also represents the first point at which the synthesizer starts to make a prominent appearance in his album work: you might say that the synthesizer effectively replaces Bowie’s voice, since it is as orchestrated, introduced and showcased as effectively and elegantly as any voice.
In some ways, that substitution is not so unusual: Bowie, after all, was the master of the synthetic identity, adopting a constructivist approach to even the most sincere utterances that made the synthesizer his natural accompaniment. However, whereas that might sound obvious now, the synthesizer was still in a fairly rudimentary existence within mainstream popular music in the mid to late 70s, and certainly hadn’t been aligned with synthetic self-replication as emphatically as it would be by the mid-80s. There is something, then, about hearing Bowie paired with the synthesizer – or, rather, replaced by it – that has the quality of a revelation, even or especially as Bowie spends the first half of Low aiming to restore some centrality to his voice, but never quite succeeding. Even on “Sound and Vision,” the closest he comes to an integrated pop song, there is a sense that his sensorium is still somewhat disaggregated by this new synthetic presence into something akin to – well, sound and vision – while his vocal burst turns out to be momentary, subsumed into the instrumental vision of “A New Career in a New Town” which in turn paves the way for an instrumental second side, consisting of four stately synthscapes which may each showcase Bowie’s voice in some mutated, transfigured or synthesizes incarnation, but nevertheless refuse to allow it anything like the freedom of regular singing, or a regular song.
As the last track on the first half of Low, then, “A New Career in a New Town” acts as a pivot between the provisional vocals of this first string of pop songs and the more radically submerged and subdued vocals of the second half. More specifically, it paves the way for “Warszawa,” the first track of the second half, and the closest to an elegy that Bowie ever recorded. As the title might suggest, it is a tribute to the citizens of Warsaw in the mid-70s and is, fittingly, the only track on the album that is co-credited to Brian Eno, which whom Bowie composed it according to some of the aleatory processes that Eno had pioneered on his ambient albums. Indeed, a slightly more toned-down version of “Warszawa” – it doesn’t seem right to speak of a remix – wouldn’t be out of place on Eno’s ambient albums, especially on 1982’s Ambient 4: On Land, whose moody textures frequently feel drawn from the second half of Low. It’s no coincidence that Phillip Glass’ Low Symphony, released in 1992, features “Warszawa” as its third and final movement, since there is a sombreness and finality to it that makes it feel as if it should almost be the final track on the album – and means that the three remaining ambient tracks, “Art Decade,” “Weeping Wall” and “Subterraneans” feel somewhat hopeful by comparison, or at least leave open the possibility of a human agency and resilience that seems precluded by the monolithic synth slabs of “Warszawa.” I’ve mentioned, earlier, that Bowie is anti-elegiac by nature, and there is something about the positioning of “Warszawa” in this way that cuts against its elegiac aspirations, something that doesn’t quite translate into Glass’ symphonic adaptation.
Taken in its entirety, then, “A New Career in a New Town” forms a pivotal role on Low: between vocals and instrumentation, between voices raised and voices submerged, between hope and elegy. At the same time, the positioning of “Warszawa” also undercuts the very elegy it is musically designed to transmit, with the result that “A New Career in a New Town” also suggests circularity and continuity as much as transition and transformation, something that is emphasised by Bowie’s decision to open and close the first half of Low with a pair of instrumental tracks. It was something of a revelation to me, then, to hear the distinct synth refrain of “A New Career in a New Town” – the synthetic woodwind sound that would become such a nostalgia touchstone in 80s music but was quite novel at this point – repeated as the refrain in the final track on Blackstar, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” As far as I can tell, no reviewer has commented on the connection between these two songs, and I may have only noticed it because it is one of my favourite refrains on Low, as well as in the entirety of Bowie’s career. Nevertheless, it feels critical, and has certainly shaped my experience of the album as a whole, as well as cementing the final track as the most resonant for me, along with the title track.
For, if Blackstar is interested in recomplicating the relationship between voice and instrumentation, as well as gradually jettisoning Bowie’s voice from his lyrics and production, this nod in the direction of “A New Career in a New Town” is the perfect way to do it. In the original track, that synth refrain effectively is the track in a sense – in its melancholy futurism, it encapsulates the pivotal position of the track in the most perfect and concise manner. Hearing it transplanted to the last track on Blackstar, then, is something of a complex experience. On the one hand, it seems to gesture towards an elegiac experience, comparable to “Warszawa”, that is clearly not coming on Blackstar itself, insofar as this is the final track on the album. On the other hand, it seems to gesture towards a collapse of voice into instrumentation that is clearly also not coming, and certainly not coming in the emphatic manner of the Berlin albums. But the circularity of that refrain, the way it suggests continuity, also comes into play, as it does on Low, with the result that Blackstar transforms – with that very last track – into an elegy that we only recognise as we are ascending beyond it, just as it announces the complete detachment of Bowie’s voice from the terrestrial realm at the very moment at which it has transcended the distinction between voice and instrumentation that seemed so at stake on the Berlin albums. As a result, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” only allows Bowie a handful of lines and a handful of appearances, as he is gradually absorbed into a musical texture that seems to nevertheless emanate from those few precious appearances. At the same time, his voice comes closer to pure music than at any other point in his career – there is something so ineffably sweet, so ineffably Bowie about these refrains that the distinction between voice and music no longer seems to matter. All in all, it is possibly his most revelatory song, not least for the way in which it revisits what, for me, has to be the greatest anthem of transfiguration in his career and transfigures that in the process. And so it is clear that the album – and this song, in particular – is a gift, a gift from Bowie to his fans, of such exquisite generosity that it captures that rare sense of communion and community that popular music at its best is all about, and which Bowie himself radiated so profusely.
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