David Bowie experimenting with the form? We have been here many times, of course. But what is so invigorating about Bowie's 25th studio album (released, like 2013 surprise "comeback" album The Next Day, on his birthday, January 8th) is how engaged he still is with wanting to reshape his art. And similarly, how bored he would be regurgitating whatever it is that we feel constitutes a David Bowie "sound" or "style".
To this end, Bowie’s recent studio album band (which includes his musical director, Dublin-born guitarist Gerry Leonard) has been jettisoned in favour of a bunch of New York jazz musicians. This ain’t rock’n’roll (as the man himself once proclaimed), and anyone expecting anything close to the poppier elements of his work won’t be too pleased.
We have received clues as to where ★ (Blackstar) lies within his body of work. When the comprehensive compilation (and reverse-chronological) Nothing Has Changed album was released in November 2014, a new track opened it: Sue (Or in a Season of Crime). A couple of months ago, The Last Panthers, a TV series on Sky Atlantic, was introduced by this album's title song and accompanying video.
The oddness continues throughout. The tri-part title track is superb, a 10-minute saxophonic spree that sets its jazz stall out with brass neck, segues into a soulful groove that nods to Bowie’s Thin White Duke heyday, and then gets back in the saddle with more tenor sax whirls.
Lesser songs, such as 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore and a revised version of Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), travel a somewhat more meandering route. Much better are such sublime tracks as Girl Loves Me, Dollar Days (the closest the album gets to pop) and the closer, I Can't Give Everything Away, a classy, guitar-driven number that subtly references Bowie's Low album).
Across a sparse seven tracks and 41 minutes, the nostalgic, sombre qualities of The Next Day have been exchanged by further explorations into jazz-infected, almost aggressive ecstasy.
This is David Bowie still following the music he hears in his head; what comes after this is anyone’s guess.