David Bowie turns 69 on Jan. 8, and has chosen to celebrate by releasing his 25th studio album, whose title is a small black star and is pronounced “Blackstar.”
Ardent fans know better than to have pre-conceived notions about what the British rock icon might be up to. They’ve realized it’s far wiser simply to let Bowie wander where he will, and to follow along and enjoy the ride — whether to inner or outer space, or somewhere right here among us earthlings.
And “Blackstar” is indeed a ride: intentionally bumpy and appealingly smooth, cacophonous and melodious, noisy and joyous, quiet and bleak, and touching on just about every mood and sound in between, from jazzy to industrial and electronic. The album is dense and intriguing, neither a straightforward rock record nor so wildly experimental as to be inaccessible. It encourages spending meaningful time to digest all the sounds and ideas at work. And even then, the non-linearity of the lyrics may never fully emerge from the gauzy cloud of moondust obscuring any literal interpretation — and that is totally groovy.
Bowie enlisted frequent and longtime lieutenant Tony Visconti to co-produce, and a group of disparate and talented collaborators to help realize his musical intricacies and oddities. Some songs are immediately compelling, like the clattering “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and the skittering, rubbery “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” a new version of a cut from his 2014 compilation “Nothing Has Changed.” Others take time to set in, like the epic title track, which transitions from woozy and muffled to spirited and jubilant.
Bowie deploys all the weapons in his vocal arsenal, from his brooding low register to a whimsical falsetto, setting a specific mood for each track. The album’s secret weapon is saxophonist Donnie McCaslin, an integral voice in the proceedings whether silken or skronky. Members of McCaslin’s quartet contribute muscularly.
Bowie ends the album with the lovely, surging flourish of “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” his voice cresting an elegant wave of synth washes and strings. Maybe he can’t give everything away, but he certainly put his all into “Blackstar.”