With his new album Backstar, David Bowie turned his passing into a work of art. Everyone must die, but very few people are able to turn that inevitable decline into something beautiful. There is no doubt that fortune, if there can be anything fortunate about dying, was on his side, but it is still quite an accomplishment, to have that kind of fortitude in the face of death.
How is the album? It’s easily his best since Heathen and quite possibly his best since the criminally underrated Outside. For the first time since that album, an album about fictional art murders at the end of the century, he has made a completely cohesive record where every track not only works, but works together.
The last three album (Heathen, Reality, The Next Day), while all featuring great material, have been somewhat flawed. The production by Tony Visconti was too clinical. Heathen, the first of the last three records, was the best and worked way more often than it did not. I can’t quite put my finger on it, as Visconti is usually top notch, but they sounded like someone trying to catch up to new technology, without mastering it. The instruments felt too separate from each other. The music often didn’t feel distinct, nor did the instruments sound like they were played with passion. (Pete Townshend, playing guitar on the song Slow Burn, provided the kind of fire that was missing on some of the other tracks.) In the past Bowie has had phases where he was consciously trying to play in a passionless way, taking inspiration from Kraftwerk, but this didn’t sound like that. That’s not saying that these records were bad. Each had things to recommend them, and all had a couple great songs, but they weren’t up to Bowie’s normal standard.
With his latest he sounds like he was truly pushing the envelope again. By recruiting younger jazz musicians, he added a distinct element to the new music. Also, Visconti regained his touch, providing the right amount of atmosphere, while still allowing unique musical personalities to come through the ambience. There is a sense of danger and adventure to the record. Bowie was again combining pop with the avant-garde. The record sounds extremely modern, but not self-consciously so. It doesn’t seem like an attempt to stay current, but that once again, like so many times, Bowie was ahead of the curve.
It’s a dark, often disturbing record, both sonically and lyrically. Bowie’s lyrics are highly interpretive here, but full of striking imagery. Anyone that starts an album with a 10 minute, two part, song filled with bleak imagery is not begging to be loved. He is as much painting abstract art with words, as he is writing traditional song lyrics. I kept thinking of the painting of David Lynch when hearing this song and several others. (Bowie has worked with Lynch in his movie Fire Walk With Me. Lynch also used Bowie’s I’m Deranged in his film Lost Highway.)
When an artist goes this far out on a limb they are in danger of creating something interesting, but possibly not inspiring. It’s always noble when an artist tries to make something unflinchingly artistic, but one risks making something that is listenable for a spin or two and quickly gets filed away. However, I kept finding myself going back to this record, listening the entire way through every time. I think this is due to the quality of the material, the exciting musical soundscapes, and the fact that the album sounds like one complete whole. There is no doubt that some who are only interested in his pop singles will not like this album, but that will be at their loss.
The record is also beautiful in places. The final song, I Can’t Give Everything Away, up above, has a gorgeous melody.
There are so few artists that can walk the high wire between pop culture and upscale art. Many modern artists can seemingly do one or the other. Bowie could seem at home in either an art gallery or on a FM station. There is no doubt that Bowie’s death probably gave this album a life that it wouldn’t have had, due to the challenging nature of some of the material. But people’s lives will be richer for having this playing in their home. So often these days #1 records seem the work of focus groups, instead of some kind of artistic endeavor. But this record is art with a capital A. If we were all talking about such a thing more often, modern life might feel so meaningless so often.