First things first: yes, Blackstar is David Bowie’s most experimental album since Earthling back in 1997. Mostly gone are the stately, dignified ballads which typified 2013’s comeback The Next Day.
Many people will of course be buying Blackstar as a tribute after the shocking news of his death. It’ll be a head-scratcher for some, who may find its unusual structures too much to take even across its fairly brief 41 minutes.
But nor is his 26th and final album the jazz odyssey some have been keen to paint it as. True, it shares more of a headspace with Bowie’s generally derided 90s drum & bass excursions than anything he’s released since. But whereas Earthling and 1.Outside often appeared an exercise in following trends rather than setting them, here Bowie has honed their skittering rhythms and subtly interwoven strong songs amongst the carnage.
The first single and title track is almost a red herring, as it’s the most abrasive of the seven songs. Running for 10 minutes, it’s effectively a suite of three songs which often appear to be playing at the same time. There are moments when it threatens to settle into something relatively sane, but it’s a hilariously inappropriate choice for a comeback single.
Actually, the first single turned out to be Sue, one of the two new songs released on the Nothing Has Been Changed compilation from 2014. It’s here, along with the other new track Tis Pity She’s A Whore. The latter song is typical of Bowie’s approach. Whereas the 2014 version was frankly a mess, here the playing is tauter and more focused. It allows the hilarious lyrics about being “punched like a dude” by a wrathful woman to bellow forth.
That Bowie still had the energy to sing with such vigour on an album released to coincide with his 69th birthday is a marvel, especially given his illness. His often overlooked humour is everywhere – he’s swearier than ever, and it’s a treat to hear him let rip on the savage Girl Loves Me.
Having treated the listener to all manner of drum assaults and parping brass on the first five songs, there is a relative oasis of calm on the closing Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything Away. The maudlin Dollar Days in particular could have fitted on The Next Day or its predecessor Reality.
In essence, it’s Bowie having an absolute blast. At the end of his life, he was bored of behaving responsibly and seemed keen to create mischief again.
More than his vintage albums, Blackstar is how he should be remembered in the wake of his passing: at the height of his creative powers, still showing everyone else how to bring music forward.
Leave Me Alone (Lucky Number)
Fans eager for the release of Hinds’ debut full-length will be pleased to know the album treads a very similar sonic trajectory to the material that made them such a buzz band in 2015.
Leave Me Alone is made up entirely of short, snappy songs, and is all the better for it. Each track is built around the vocal interplay between the Spanish quartet’s guitarists, Carlotta Cosials and Ana García Perrote. No song hangs around long enough to stagnate, stand still or even pause for thought – every burst a well-crafted snapshot of Black Lips garage rock via woozy C86 indie that’s sunnier than their Madrid hometown.
Previous singles Bamboo, San Diego and Garden showcase the riotous lo-fi sound of the majority of the record. It’s a sound reflected in the video for album highlight Chili Town, which sees the four-piece cracking beers on the street and generally portraying the gang mentality that oozes out of every crevice of their debut.
Even during its most downbeat moments, Leave Me Alone never strays far from the positivity encapsulated in the booming chorus for San Diego: “He couldn’t stay here one more night/So take me to the beach, alright!” It’s been a long wait, but after a year of hype, Hinds are set for still bigger things.
Where Have You Been All My Life (Domino)
Having been nominated for the Mercury Prize for his first two albums, Villagers mainman Conor O’Brien seems to be taking stock for his fourth record – last album Darling Arithmetic from 2015 missed out on the awards circuit despite being his most honest and finest work.
Where Have You Been All My Life isn’t a new album as such. All 12 songs were recorded in just one day, revisiting O’Brien’s own favourite songs from his past as well as a cover of Wichita Lineman.
O’Brien’s Villagers persona has long specialised in wintry acoustic melodies, and this new collection sees his songs pared back to the absolute sparseness familiar from Darling Arithmetic. It improves some songs – Everything I Am Is Yours and the lilting Courage are made all the more joyful for the hope that slowly develops from the spartan arrangements.
But others miss their original bounce, with Hot Scary Summer sounding like a demo rather than a reinvention.
The delicate playing and O’Brien’s keening, direct voice will always hit home, but it feels like an introductory album for newcomers rather than being radically different enough for existing fans who already own the songs.
And it’s a shame O’Brien didn’t revisit his finest moment, the sumptuous past single Nothing Arrived, which feels like it would have benefited from the minimalism.
Fine as stopgaps go, but hardly an essential purchase.