Today is David Bowie’s 69th birthday. Today David Bowie released ★ (“Blackstar”), his 26th studio album in his five decade-ish career. And Seattle’s KEXP has declared today Intergalactic Bowie Day.[fn]
I’m not part of the Bowie cognoscenti. I mean, I’m familiar with him in the way that anybody who’s part of American culture is familiar with him—I know about Ziggy Stardust, I’ve seen Labyrinth, I’m familiar with his classic rock radio staples, I laughed at Vanilla Ice’s claim that “Ice Ice Baby”‘s baseline differed in some substantial way from Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” but I never really dug in deeply to Bowie’s oeuvre.
But then, Tuesday night, I read the New York Times’s article on the upcoming “Blackstar.” That Bowie, enamored of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” had decided to use a jazz quartet as the center of his band. Intrigued, I listened to Donny McClasin’s “Casting For Gravity.” Over and over. McClasin and his band were really, really good—groove-based, but really outside.
Rock musicians playing with jazz musicians is nothing new, of course. Joni Mitchell worked with Charles Mingus and the musicians from Weather Report in the 1970s. When Sting went solo, half of his band came from Wynton Marsalis’s group.
“Blackstar” strikes me as different, though. It’s not a jazz album, but neither is it a traditional rock album. Bowie’s singing, for the most part, is simple, melodic, and calm. But underneath, the band skitters, enters, exits, grows, and shrinks. It’s harmonically interesting and rhythmically interesting. I don’t want to say the music contrasts with Bowie’s singing, because his singing integrates seamlessly with the music, but together, they create restless, uncentered world, a world that doesn’t land or stop, but just keeps moving.
I don’t know where exactly this fits into Bowie’s discography; I suspect (based on the many reviews I’ve read) that it’s a departure from anything he’s done before. But Bowie’s career seems to be constant progression, constant departure. And just because he’s 69, it appears, he hasn’t decided to comfortably land.
Know that the two catchiest songs on the album (“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Girl Loves Me”) are marked “Explicit” by Apple Music, and probably deserve it. (I mean, they’re not Kendrick Lamar, but there are some bad words).
But you really should celebrate Intergalactic Bowie Day by listening to “Blackstar.” It looks like you can stream it on Amazon Prime, Spotify, and Apple Music, at least. And once you’re done, go to KEXP.org to listen to other periods of Bowie’s work.
[fn] Yeah, there’s not really any Mormon connection here. But Bowie!