David Bowie, ‘Blackstar,’ ISO/Columbia
On his birthday and two days before his death, David Bowie released “Blackstar,” his 25th album, which serves as a fitting musical epitaph.
On “Blackstar,” he transforms himself once again, proving that at 69, he still had plenty of surprises up his musical sleeve.
Recording primarily with an avant-garde jazz quartet and with a longtime collaborator, co-producer Tony Visconti, Bowie crafted a haunting, seven-song collection that deals thematically with death and despair.
It now will be endlessly parsed for clues about his own impending mortality.
Far from being depressing, the album feels uplifting and relentlessly inventive.
Credit, of course, goes to Bowie, but his new playmates here keep pace with him note for note, especially drummer Mark Guiliana, whose persistent beats provide an earthly tether to Bowie’s often ethereal vocals, and saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose bleating playing often gives the project a deliberately off-kilter, discordant feel.
Whether on the disturbing title track, which ties together two seemingly disparate tunes and is rumored to be about ISIS, the narrated-from-heaven tale “Lazarus,” or the album closer, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Bowie has, for the last time, reinvented not only himself, but popular music in a way that challenges, but never alienates, the listener.
It’s an appropriate and satisfying musical goodbye.
Melinda Newman, Associated Press
Rachel Platten, ‘Wildfire,’ Columbia
It’s difficult to argue with the spirit of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” one of last year’s biggest unexpected pop hits, which bristles with late-1990s optimism filtered through Katy Perry-scale sturm und drang.
“This is my fight song/Take back my life song/Prove I’m all right song,” Platten shouts, lifting herself up from the doldrums and attempting to carry everyone else with her.
But “Fight Song,” which went to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, is also outrageously grating, almost numbing in its Disney-esque simplicity and sanded-smooth edges. It does the seemingly impossible work of making one root against self-empowerment.
“Wildfire,” Platten’s debut major label album, reveals that hiding under all that earnest intention there’s a savvy pop star itching to be heard. She has a clear, edgeless voice, and she’s versatile, though often here it can sound like she’s blindly experimenting with styles.
“You Don’t Know My Heart” dabbles in club R&B, and “Lone Ranger” is indebted to the country-influenced dance music Avicii was making a couple of years ago.
Platten is at her best when she relies more on shorthand pop gestures and less on subject matter. But uplift is a constant theme on this album, placing Platten in the company of a set of rising female singers, including Tori Kelly and Alessia Cara, who prioritize sincerity and self-empowerment over flash. Even at her most defiant, though, Platten never truly sounds aggrieved.
In places she just aims for pure joy, like on “Hey Hey Hallelujah,” a duet with another of last year’s unexpected pop breakouts, Andy Grammer (of the execrable fidelity anthem “Honey I’m Good”). Platten sings some overwrought soul yelps and it’s all amiable enough.
But then Grammer arrives, rapping, or something like it, “Hallelujah, when you touch me/Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley.” It’s unbearably grim, further proof that good intentions aren’t enough.
Jon Caramanica, New York Times News Service