Pop music may still (and always) be a young person’s game, but a rock star with an AARP card is not exactly an anomaly these days. If anything, it’s more about what kind of elder statesman a seasoned artist chooses to be: Are you Cool Grandad Paul McCartney, playing strummy-casual third Musketeer to Kanye West and Rihanna and jamming out Nirvana covers with Dave Grohl? A defiantly rumpled rabble-rouser à la Neil Young? Or maybe more of a classic Billy Joel, cranking out vintage Piano Man hits monthly for a seemingly unquenchable audience at Madison Square Garden?
David Bowie, who returned with his 26th studio album on Friday — a date that also happens to coincide with his 69th birthday — can’t be easily slotted among any of these. Then again, that’s hardly surprising; The Man Who Fell to Earth has made an entire career of defying terrestrial categories and classification. As much as Bowie the Artist can be defined, it’s only in the most elusive terms: He is our eternal iconoclast, he is stardust, he is normcore Kryptonite.
Or, as he drawls on Blackstar’s chilly, undulating self-titled opener, after enumerating all the things he isn’t (film-star, pop-star, gang-star), “You’re a flash in the pan/I’m the Great I Am.” Which would sound like just another rap-blog-level boast, if it weren’t so demonstrably true. Like nearly all his records, this one is a fully immersive experience; trips to Bowie-land — a place where every encounter is a metaphysical hall of mirrors, all the hours are after hours, and the cult of personality has its own G-force — don’t really come any other way.
Nearly every track on Blackstar is strange and unnerving, almost wraithlike, but beautiful too; threaded through with elements of elegantly skronked-out jazz, serrated guitar lines, and swooning orchestral flourishes. (Longtime collaborator Tony Visconti is billed as coproducer, and a cadre of young jazz-world luminaries appear, including Donny McCaslin, Ben Monder, and Mark Guiliana.) The dreamy, multilayered “Lazarus” sounds like some gorgeous song-Frankenstein strung together from disparate but oddly complementary scraps of history: part smoky Weimar cabaret circa 1933, part Tortoise studio session circa 1993. “Sue or In a Season of Crime” is galloping and urgent, a cracked domestic dream of determined reassurances (“I’ve got the job/We’ll buy the house”; “The clinic called/The X-ray’s fine”) that turn desperate and vaguely murderous when Sue leaves the narrator for another man. “Girl Loves Me” is a slow, delicious spiral into nonsense and stomping melody whose only clear lyrical takeaway is the indignant refrain: “Where the f— did Monday go?” (Anyone looking for a little Victorian storytelling with their sadomasochism might like the arch, giddy, and wildly saxophoned “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” even more).
Lines can be drawn from Blackstar back to Space Oddity and Aladdin Sane, the three-piece-suit-on-MTV ’80s and the industrial darkness and moody experiments of the ’90s and ’00s. But Bowie has never been much of a nostalgic or a self-mythologizer; he can’t be, really, when his vision beams so consistently in one direction: forward. Maybe that’s why Blackstar feels so vital, and arguably better than anything he’s done in years. There are more than enough narratives to follow down the rabbit hole here, and themes and imagery so dense they could probably be dissected for days or even weeks. Most of all, though, it’s the kind of album that works beautifully as a physical experience — an all-senses headphone surrender to the sound of an artist who is older and almost definitely wiser but still fantastically, singularly himself. A-