David Bowie: Blackstar | Virgin Media
David Bowie: Blackstar

David Bowie: Blackstarby Matthew Horton | Rating: ★★★★★

08/01/2016Music

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The late David Bowie had one last surprise up his sleeve. This is how we turned the telescope on Blackstar in a review written before his death.

How will you celebrate your 69th birthday? With a 26th studio album that proves you've lost none of your deep well of mojo supply? Well, probably not. We're not all David Bowie.

For a fair stretch of the new century, neither was he. Disappearing from view after 2003's Reality – with only the odd live appearance before he shrank from that too in 2006 – Bowie settled into what looked like retirement, reportedly dealing with health problems but essentially off anyone's radar whatever his state. That was what made The Next Day's sudden appearance so unexpected, and so delightful. He was back and on form, with an album at least the equal of any he'd recorded in the preceding 30 years.

There have been more new tracks since. The challenging avant-jazz adventure of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) appeared on 2014 best of set Nothing Has Changed, while the hurtling improv electronica of 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore came out around the same time, and both turn up here. We've also heard Blackstar's title track, an experimental 10-minute rock epic that soundtracked TV show The Last Panthers, and Lazarus – tying in with his off-Broadway musical of the same name – has been previewed too.

As an introductory track, Blackstar is worth a whole album alone

So more than half of Blackstar's seven tracks are familiar, but it's in context that they're most effective. Sue and 'Tis A Pity have been re-recorded – their more machine-driven originals may actually be better, but the new versions fit with the rest of the album. They're more organic, more obviously jazzy, with saxophone and other woodwind from Donny McCaslin, and assured playing from other jazz veterans including Ben Monder on guitar and Mark Guiliana on drums.

As an introductory track, Blackstar is worth a whole album alone. Its creepy verses ("In the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle") give way to freestyle sax before an entirely new song emerges ("I'm a Blackstar… I'm not a popstar"), quite gorgeous, dreamy even. A dubby interlude then flute lead us back to "the day of execution" before it all breaks down with failing beats. Anything beyond this is a bonus.

And there's plenty of that, from the fluid gothic atmospherics of Lazarus to Sue's near-nu-metal prangs of guitar, before we reach the unheard songs. Girl Loves Me is quirky, dark pop, electronic blips meeting twisted romance; Dollar Days has the smooth jangle of The Isley Brothers' Harvest For The World about it before a huge sax solo takes it into the great beyond.

Perhaps the best of the new bunch is closer I Can't Give Everything Away, which plucks a breakbeat and a harmonica out of leftfield to create one of the more straightforward songs on Blackstar. It's elegiac but dynamic with a late guitar solo reminiscent of the closing squalls of Kate Bush's 

Wuthering Heights, and it plays games with us too. "I can't give everything away… Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That's the message that I sent" – this is Bowie addressing his own mystery, an opacity that gets murkier every year even as he gives us more and more. Long live the enigma.