Album review: Jherek Bischoff & Amanda Palmer – Strung Out in Heaven

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

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Blasphemous, maybe, but Amanda Palmer’s version of ‘Blackstar’ made me sit up and listen in a way that David Bowie’s recent original doesn’t quite manage.

Palmer, along with EP collaborator and composer Jherek Bischoff and guest vocalist Anna Calvi, manages to take a song that is already difficult and suite-like in structure, and emphasises melody parts and intricacies that were more purposely buried in Bowie’s 10-minute single.

It’s possible the reason why this cover version in particular on a mini-album of five Bowie songs in total (including one instrumental of ‘Life on Mars?’), makes the biggest impression is because it has the least history attached to it.

Elsewhere, Palmer bravely picks some of his most lived in and iconic songs for this baroque, chamber-pop tribute which is all tied together by Bischoff’s wondrously ornate, clipped and occasionally savage string arrangements.

Recorded over three days soon after Bowie’s death, there is an extra layer of poignancy when Palmer plaintively sings out ‘something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a metre and stepped aside’. She is a super fan who took Bowie’s inspiration with her and thus became a multimedia recording star herself, singing these words written by her hero and exposed to the world just days before he left it. ‘Blackstar’ soars and thrills with both tremendous power and tenderness in equal measure.

Jherek Bischoff’s regal and standoffish orchestral interpretation of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is endlessly flourishing and dramatic and is arguably the second most successful interpretation here. Immediately familiar, the introduction still confuses as it is utterly recognisable but simultaneously hard to place due to the preciseness of the strings versus the original’s jolting and wobbling synths and bass.

Palmer herself is in wonderful voice here and throughout. She understands the actual point of Bowie’s work in a way that many would, and doubtless will, struggle with.

‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Heroes’ (which features support vocals delivered via iPhone by Shortbus director and Hedwig and the Angry Inch star John Cameron Mitchell) suffer only because it’s hard to listen to them and not simultaneously hear, or crave, Bowie’s originals.

These songs’ omnipresence in pop culture over the last four decades or so have very nearly rendered them immune to other interpretations but Amanda Palmer and her cohorts still succeed in capturing the essence of both. A more heartfelt and sincere tribute will indeed be hard to come across.