Every David Bowie super-fan has their own personal story about what made them click with his art, the magnetic, “a-ha!” moment that made them realize his greatness was as irresistible as gravitational pull. My personal David Bowie awakening came about because of 1995’s disorienting “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” a song distinguished by haunted piano, grinding electronic programming and slashing guitars.
Sonically, the Brian Eno co-produced tune wasn’t far off from Nine Inch Nails (then and now a favorite band of mine), but it was somehow both more mysterious and mischievous—a compulsively listenable song that made me want to unscramble its secrets.
As I continued following Bowie’s career progression—and in parallel went back and devoured his unstoppable back catalog—the nagging sense that all of his records were puzzles to figure out never went away. These albums weren’t constructed in a vacuum: Bowie’s music and lyrics drew from disparate artistic and cultural influences, and he worked with collaborators who employed innovative studio techniques and cutting-edge technology. Each LP felt more like one small part of a larger creative universe, a jumping-off point for discovery rather than a finite musical statement.
Bowie’s twenty-sixth studio album, ★, has a particularly ambitious sonic and thematic vision—so much so that you almost need Google on standby while listening. The colloquial, profane and nonsensical lyrics to “Girl Loves Me,” a hip-hop-tinged track with forceful drums and orchestral swells, reference A Clockwork Orange‘s Nadsat language and “come from Polari, a form of British slang used by gay men in mid-20th-century London,” Rolling Stone noted. “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is named after a 17th-century John Ford play involving sibling incest, although even that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Bowie described it in a press release as “if Vorticists wrote Rock Music it might have sounded like this,” namechecking a briefly popular early 20th century British artistic movement marked by sharp angles, sleek geometric abstraction and a modernist bent.
And these are just the overt touchstones to research, out of all of Bowie’s albums, ★ might contain his most inscrutable lyrics yet. Reading between the lines, the album is fueled by a sense of creeping dread and despair, the idea that the characters within only have a tenuous grasp on reality or control over their own lives—and both of these things are rapidly slipping away. The title track can be interpreted as a commentary on how greed, evil and corruption have superseded religion’s good works; “Dollar Days” is conflicted between pushing back against an untenable situation and trying to move past it; and “Lazarus” imagines the Biblical figure coming back to life with a swagger, not humility. But these are just guesses. There are no obvious images or allusions to latch onto and interpret, and few thematic toeholds to use for clues.
Yet ★’s sense of fatalistic ruin is exacerbated by bleak music, which is even more compelling and dense than the lyrics. Bowie chose his collaborators wisely on this album: long-time producer Tony Visconti and the fabled New York City jazz troupe, the Donny McCaslin Quartet, which includes saxophonist McCaslin, bassist Tim Lefebvre, keyboardist Jason Lindner and drummer Mark Guiliana. Together, this group tints ★ with watercolor-like jazz streaks rooted in abstraction.
“‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” feels like a tarnished party jam, between the frenzied saxophone runs and sighing background vocal harmonies, while the low-lit “Lazarus” sounds like an apocalyptic cabaret number, built on top of ominous bass and restrained horns. At times, ★ feels like a more refined, deliberately less-commercial spin on certain moments of Bowie’s 1993 album Black Tie White Noise, which contained both a Scott Walker cover (“Nite Flights”) and one of his most underrated singles: “Jump They Say,” a shapeshifting funk song features Bowie playing a mournful saxophone melody in tandem with a sizzling solo from jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie.
And like Black Tie White Noise, ★ has an underlying fascination with electronic elements. A remake of the 2014 single “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” pairs flickering sax notes and prog undertones with frantic, drum ‘n’ bass-reminiscent patterns that sound like marbles scattering on a floor, while the title track merges keyboard zaps and melting-face vocal moans to create a creepy, haunted house vibe. (Notably, the latter also features a bridge that resembles a conversation at the gates of heaven—that perhaps morphs into a chat in hell—courtesy of a twitching vocal delivery and cinematic programming.)
In a surprise twist, the penultimate song on ★, “Dollar Days,” sounds like a Smiths ballad, with lush strings and seaside acoustic guitar. But the album’s most straightforward song is the closing tune, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” As glacial synths and staticky drums hum in the background, subservient to flourishes such as a mournful harmonica, a zig-zagging saxophone and snaky guitar distortion, Bowie repeats the title of the song over and over again. It’s a firm declaration rather than a desperate plea, a stand-your-ground move in the face of a challenger. Even so, the antagonist is amorphous and unknown. Maybe it’s an enemy, maybe not.
I’ve always appreciated that Bowie records tend to provoke questions rather than provide answers. And with each listen of ★, I’m somehow no closer to understanding what it’s supposed to represent or convey. Instead of being frustrating, that’s actually a galvanizing thing. Bowie has a relentless drive to create challenging music that never takes the easy route. That not only explains his remarkable ability to pique listener curiosity, but it underscores why, more than fifty years into his career, he’s still making records that sound as vital and intriguing as ★.
Annie Zaleski is a freelance writer living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.