David Bowie – “★”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Blackstar” “Girl Loves Me”

I wrote this on the day of the album’s release and decided not to change it after his passing. Rest easy, Starman. Thanks for everything.

Bowie’s return to weirdness has been so natural, it’s easy to forget he spent a decade in retirement and the previous decade in a creative decline. His new album, his 26th, is among the strangest and most provocative he’s ever released. It seems like Bowie spent his decade in retirement (2003-2013) reminiscing on his own career. Throughout all the characters Bowie has performed as over the years, there’s really only been two real ones – pop Bowie, and terrifying avant-garde Bowie. His excellent 2013 comeback album “The Next Day” was pop Bowie, middling, introspective rock songs and ballads about growing old in a culture that values youth. He sounded pained but not so much remorseful as satisfied with himself. It seemed like a final album, a send-off, a ‘thanks for listening.’ Then this happened.

The opening song on “Blackstar” (officially titled ““) is “Blackstar,” in spelled-out form. It is only 17 seconds shorter than his longest, the 10:14 classic “Station to Station.” It originally surpassed 11 minutes but Bowie and longtime co-producer Tony Visconti sliced it down to 10 so they could release it as a single on iTunes (Bowie is a man of the people). Bowie’s vocals mix with the free-form jazz to sound somewhat akin to Scott Walker. It’s less “Diamond Dogs” and more “Bish Bosch,” and it’s hard not to imagine Walker when listening, another musician who had a modest start before growing increasingly ambitious and experimental (and who has been around even longer!)

There’s only seven songs on this album, with the title track accounting for slightly under 1/4 of the album’s length. It is less rock, less pop, and more free-form jazz. Bowie and co. have said they were listening to “To Pimp a Butterfly” when they wrote this, saying Kendrick Lamar’s attention to blending genres inspired them to do the same. But it sounds more like Bowie was listening to himself. “Blackstar” and it’s video have maybe-references to satanist Aleister Crowley, who was a heavy inspiration to Bowie during the “Station to Station” recording session. And “Lazarus” includes the line “I used up all my money / I was looking for your ass,” which sure seems to mimic the self-description in “Ziggy Stardust,” “With god-given ass.” Elsewhere, he sings the plot of the 17th century play “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” in a song with the same name, an incestual, murderous tale.

Musically, the album walks the line of free-form jazz, almost always maintaining a steady beat but allowing for tempo changes (“Blackstar”) and avant-garde horn freakouts (“‘Tis a Pity…”). A majority of the songs are heavy on horns and drums, with less guitar. Bowie often, and sometimes unexpectedly, gives way to the music. The influence of Lamar is only a spiritual level, but “Girl Loves Me” does have a beat that sounds hip-hop inspired.

With all the characters and personae that Bowie has performed as over the decades, it’s easy to forget just how he became famous at all – he’s got an insanely good voice. It comes through here, especially on “Girl Loves Me” and “Lazarus” but across the whole album. “Girl Loves Me” is an enchanting, almost hymn-like song with Bowie’s voice in both the fore and background. It’s the strongest vocal song on the album. He sounds restrained throughout, like it’s all part of an avant nightmare. The only real exception is “‘Tis a Pity…” where his vocals sound more pronounced, more confident.

There is no character here. “” is a glorious and scary mess that is haunting because there’s no character – this is an album Bowie and co. wanted to make. It’s one of the least accessible albums he’s made in his entire career, and it will surely be placed alongside “Station” and “Let’s Dance” among his best work. This does not sound like a final album, but if it is, then Bowie is requesting demanding that we remember him primarily as an artist, an ambitious one unafraid to make something jarring and remote, and not as a successful pop songwriter. “I am not a film star,” he muses on the title track, even with great turns in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth, and, sure, Zoolander. He’s deeper than those roles. He is a blackstar, something theoretical, something deep, massive and annihilating. He is also demanding that, like Lazarus, he live on far past his actual self. Don’t worry, Bowie, you’re going to.

-By Andrew McNally

No Man’s Valley – “…And Four Other Songs”

Grade: B+

Key Track: “Happy?”

It’s tempting to call No Man’s Valley a throwback band for today’s music. The Dutch group has the constructs of a typical rock band – vocals, guitars, bass, drums and keyboard. But the band prides themselves on incorporating 60s’ style rhythms and moods into their songs, and there’s elements from many different eras. The songs have a garage rock energy to them, and there is a frequent use of soundclips. When the whole package comes together, it becomes a band taking many different influences to become their own unique sound.

No Man’s Valley hails from the Netherlands, but their feelings are universal. The band sings of common themes like work, not fitting in, and, on the opener and best song “Happy?,” societal pressures to seem happy. “Happy?,” serving as a single of types, is the most 60’s-inspired song on the EP. The guitar-and-synth at the song’s beginning sounds like something the Zombies would have jammed on, if they sang about struggling to be happy instead of an actual happy song. it has a slow-burning energy and has a classic feel to it. “Sleeping on the Job” is a much more ‘recent’ era song – another slow-burner, but one that angrily takes on the tediousness of working (specifically, at an ad agency). Again, the song’s guitar/synth combination is a winner, this time taking on a 70’s feel.

“Moon” is definitely the most experimental song on the release, to the point where it almost doesn’t fit. But it’s a great song. The nearly five-minute song is slower, and has a hefty instrumental midsection played over soundclips, before erupting into a big, synth-heavy climax. Lyrically, the song tackles a feeling of loneliness, with the frequently repeated “The moon is a good listener” speaking volumes. The follow-up, “Black Sheep,” the quickest, shortest and most energetic track. It might be the least interesting one, but it does capture the band’s 60’s inspirations pretty dead-on. Finally, “We Have Lost the Way” serves as a fitting finale. The midtempo song strips away the vocals for a majority (save a soundclip, again tackling the ad agency), for a rousing sendoff, before bringing them back in and ever so slowly fading out.

Listeners could strike many comparisons to No Man’s Valley. One of the most immediate would be Nick Cave. Cave’s music is eclectic, but with a strong personal identity. “…And Four Other Songs” has a consistent tone and energy, combining many styles while staying original. The vocals might be compared to the vocals of Scott Walker – deep, and almost crooning at times. It doesn’t always work on this EP, but it often reinforces the dark and introspective lyrics. No Man’s Valley find originality in established influences, and “…And Four Other Songs” only goes to show that.

“Happy?” is streaming on their bandcamp page, and the EP will be available for free on March 23rd.

-By Andrew McNally