With the serendipitous release of David Bowie‘s twenty-fifth album on his sixty-ninth birthday, the Thin White Duke could not look better—and could not sound weirder. Bowie is no stranger to challenging audiences, venturing into abstraction with 1977’s Low and leaning heavily on saxophone and keyboards with his 1993 soundtrack album The Buddha of Suburbia. ★ (pronounced “Blackstar”) nestles in with his kraut-favoring releases, with Bowie deferring much of the limelight to sax, flute, keys, bass, and drums. The title track (and lead single) is a ten-minute free-jazz exercise that will cause head-scratching among those who only know Bowie from his pop hits but might raise interests among fans of Radiohead’s Kid A.
★ is an album that takes listeners to the many corners of Bowie’s mind. He seems most impressed with his fiery band on the more traditionally structured “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”—crying “Whoa!” toward the end—but takes center stage, at last, with the vocal-heavy “Lazarus” (“I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird” is one of his more penetrating lyrics). “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” solidifies ★ as a complex and textured headphone record (where’s DVD-Audio when you need it?) and “Girl Loves Me” edges close to hip-hop thanks to Tim Lefebvre’s active bass. “Dollar Days” more closely invokes Ziggy Stardust, reminding us that while the world has changed dramatically since Bowie began—most recently, with the growing acceptance and appreciation of androgyny, which Bowie trail-blazed—he has, in some ways, not. The closing “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is, like all of ★, dark in essence but not eerie. Bowie’s latest doesn’t need to haunt in order to dig deep, but these seven tracks have enough power and depth to be unpacked for years.