My favourite album of all time is The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. I can think of no other album that matches its propensity for prophetic greatness. However much you love Elvis, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, as the artists generally most synonymous with mainstream musical greatness, they actually represent little more than the natural product of their slowly evolving progenitors; glacé cherries on the slow-baked cake that is rock ‘n’ roll. These are not revolutionary acts – not really. Revolution is to do as David Bowie did in 1972 – to look boldly into the future, predict the chokehold of punk and deliver it on hurricane winds of heroin-fuelled poetry and bodacious glam rock excellence. You think Lou Reed and John Cale created proto-punk in 1967 with The Velvet Underground & Nico? Well they didn’t – but they certainly nudged the man who did.
And so, on January 8th 2016 (his 69th birthday), David Bowie releases his twenty-fifth studio album. It’s pronounced “blackstar”, though naturally, it’s imperative you refer to it in writing as the soundless ★. There is, in this title, an eerie sense of anonymity that surpasses the pretention of most typographical phenomena in music – this is not simply a reiteration of Prince’s bogus symbol. This entire record is, in fact, a very careful examination of the ‘star’ as a concept that has survived a transition to the postmodern; an analogy for the artist that straddles the modern and beyond. However, quite what is being foretold here – well, it’s unclear. If 1972 saw Bowie predict punk, then what’s on offer here in 2016 is quite frightening indeed.
2013’s The Next Day began the realisation of Bowie as postmodern icon: from the butchered “Heroes” sleeve to the indecisive sound of the album (good ol’ glam on Valentine’s Day; loungey shoegaze (kind of) on Where Are We Now?), Bowie’s twenty-fourth saw your friendly neighbourhood art rocker thinking outside the box. ★ is then a step toward removal of the box completely – the remnants of the early-1970s couldn’t be less distinguishable; and yet, as the Thin White Duke’s masterful reinvention into soothsayer sceptic unfolds, that couldn’t matter less.
Take the title-track for example – the boldest lead-single choice since LCD Soundsystem tested the water in 2002 with seven minutes of James Murphy very defensively discussing his favourite bands. Here, we have ten minutes of bat-shit Bowie at his best – Gregorian chanting, shady lyrics and electronic percussion ripped straight from Nine Inch Nails’ first album. These attributes bookend a simply gorgeous ‘other’; a two-or-three-minute pop gem that sways gaily with multi-layered vocals and, of course, a mad chord-progression. Just when you think it couldn’t be any more beautifully eclectic a song, these elements merge for a clever finale. Immediately, even before the LP was released, Bowie had everyone muddled - because, in fairness, who does drop a 10-minute lead single? Reworks of the jazzy Tis’ A Pity She Was A Whore and Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) follow, streamlined for ease-of-access, and with the gloomy Lazarus sandwiched between. I was fascinated by the close of track four – Bowie had, and would continue to, surprise me with his evasion of ostentatiousness. The experimentation is never contrived, and is instead matched by the braveness of his words: just how many times this year will a pop linchpins pen a lines such as, “Sue, the clinic called / The x-ray’s fine”? Bowie isn’t being poncey either – his dark poetic allusions to death, regret and insecurity vacillate in their sincerity. On Tis’ A Pity, the narrator is positively throwaway in his remarks – one song later, the artist laments: “Everybody knows me now”. If ever there was a contender for soundtrack to the damnation of directionless postmodernity, it’s ★.
Despite a solid first side, it is in fact the album’s final three tracks that really seal the deal. Girl Loves Me is a frightening stomper, gloomily droned in Nadsat, the fictional dialect from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange; Dollar Days after it, is an anxious swamp of saxophones, and acoustic guitars (it is, ironically, perhaps the conventional number here). On closer I Can’t Give Everything Away, Bowie’s final sentiment is a teasing one. Like a dolled-up Derrida, he is as prepared to account for his actions as David Lynch, choosing instead to wind us up with his mystical intonations: “Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent”.
Just what is he getting at? Does it matter? The cosmic oddity of Major Tom is nothing – now, it would seem, David Bowie has even more and even less to say. This is so perfect a summary of today’s nothing, an idea that a majority of contemporary artists can only ever dream of alluding to, that it is almost worthy of tears. Listening to this LP for the first time myself (sat bolt-upright in bed at 3 a.m. on January 8th, splitting earphones and drinking coffee with my girlfriend), I did very nearly cry. The fact of the matter is this – at the start of 2016, we are without breakthroughs in the art of popular culture. Every now and again, an artist will threaten to be significant – St. Vincent might eschew conventional drum-timings in an unoriginal fit of avant-garde pantomime expressionism; Kanye West will surprise-release a gorgeously produced instrumental, only for his fat mouth to shit all over it; maybe Thom Yorke will rear his massive head to whine intolerably about something in an overblown way that is far too clever for anyone who isn’t either Colin Greenwood or himself. Again and again, we’ve toyed with experimentalism and self-indulgence; we’ve reached the pinnacle of linear artistic development with post-modernism and a self-conscious desire for eradication. And whilst ★ is hardly an answer to our qualms with the universe, it is a more perfect soundtrack to this era of discontent than you could possibly hope for.