The following review was posted on Jan. 8, just two days before David Bowie's death.
David Bowie will celebrate his 69th birthday Friday with the release of his 28th studio album “★ ” (ISO/Columbia), but, as has often been the case in his 51-year career, it sounds like he is once again starting over.
While his previous album, 2013’s surprise “The Next Day,” seemed like Bowie reinterpreting his previous work with spectacular results, “★ ” (pronounced “Blackstar”) is another reinvention. Bowie has cobbled together these seven songs out of bits of jazz, EDM, metal, Broadway and pop, creating something fresh, but also wholly familiar, thanks to his distinctive, legendary voice.
The 10-minute title track offers a taste of what is to come, starting with skittering EDM beats that come to a halt at the five-minute mark, when Bowie delivers his purest pop break in years. Of course, that too is short-lived, as haunting, distorted vocals twist the memorable pop melody in unexpected directions, as Bowie repeatedly declares, “I’m a blackstar.”
The first single, “Lazarus,” the only song from the album that is also featured in his off-Broadway musical, seems to show the origin of this new mix of styles, led by jazz player Donny McCaslin, whose sax seems to be in conversation with Bowie throughout the song. On “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” McCaslin piles one stylish solo on top of another, balancing Bowie’s cool delivery of lines like, “Man, she punched me like a dude” with frantic musical tension.
On “I Can’t Give Everything,” Bowie seems to take back the New Romantic movement he inspired in the ’80s and add another layer of percolating musicianship to suggest the turmoil beneath the cool surface. It’s nothing short of brilliant.
What keeps this album from joining the greatest of Bowie’s works is the lack of an overarching theme, musical or lyrical. Nevertheless, it’s packed with bold ideas and avant-garde approaches that show his creativity only keeps growing.