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Time is out of joint on David Bowie’s 25th studio album, Blackstar, recorded in secret and released on January 8, the day of his 69th birthday.
Occult chants and shifting time signatures set the mood on the creepy 10-minute title track, a tour-de-force of odd juxtapositions in which rap slang invokes hip-hop’s Illuminati conspiracy theories and an eerie flute motif conjures the very different setting of 1970s folk-rock.
This bold prog-rock groove continues with “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” (siren-like sax, busy percussion), followed by a respectful doff of the hat to modern prog maestros Radiohead on “Lazarus”. Topsy-turvy lyrics abound — babies born upside down, the lightless star of the title, a woman “who punched me like a dude” — sung by Bowie in a bravura range of styles, from quavering croons to theatrical falsetto.
Veteran collaborator Tony Visconti co-produces with Bowie. Backing musicians include a New York jazz quartet led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whom Bowie recruited after seeing in a West Village club.
A tailing off in intensity at the end suggests the seven-track album might have benefited from allowing the jazzers to cut loose even more. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” has a nicely smooth groove but fritters away guitarist Ben Monder on boilerplate rock solos.
The cavil is minor. Blackstar is atmospheric and adventurous. The jazz-rock fusion is pitch perfect on the title track and not far off that on “Dollar Days”, a blend of imposing “Starman” melancholy and McCaslin’s visceral sax.
A mournful sense of guilt hangs over the music. “I know something is very wrong,” Bowie intones — but his surreal verses make obscure what exactly is wrong.
It is up to us to judge how foreboding Blackstar’s timing is, arriving in the wake of the warmest December ever recorded on either side of the Atlantic: a meteorological omen in keeping with the apocalyptic fantasies that have long fed Bowie’s imagination.