Who would have thought Blackstar would turn out to be David Bowie’s final album? As it turns out, not many, other than Bowie himself. Here, we take a long, hard look at the man’s parting gift to the world.
When the video for Blackstar hit the internet in November of 2015, I thought it was a wonderfully creepy, icky experience, both sonically and visually. It was an a-typical sounding song for Bowie, which was typical of him. When the video for Lazarus hit last Friday, just a day before the release of the Blackstar album and the British eccentric’s 69th birthday, I thought it was haunting and eerie, but didn’t think much of it. Bowie could be weird, inaccessible and famously unpredictable. When, finally, the news hit the streets that he had died after an private, eighteen-month battle with cancer just two days after his birthday and the release of Blackstar, it dawned upon me, and many people, that there was something more to Bowie’s 25th album.
It has since been confirmed by Bowie’s record producer, Tony Visconti, that Blackstar had been intended all along as a final parting gift to the world. When you take a long, hard look at the lyrics on Blackstar, this becomes very clear. If you take a look at the artwork, the first album cover to not feature Bowie’s image prominently, you realise this is an artist who’s saying goodbye to the world, to his fans, and to his own life. This becomes painfully clear on Lazarus, where he seems to speak directly to the listener. Look up here, I’m in heaven, he sings, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. Later in the song, he sings about finally free. This is a song about a man ready to part with life, ready to stop fighting and be free of his cancer, and these worldly restraints. It’s about the Starman finally returning to the stars.
It makes Blackstar a hard album to listen to in this new light. A meticulously orchestrated parting gift of a dying, deeply spiritual man. It helps that it’s a cracker of an album. I had written half a review already before learning of Bowie’s death, carefully avoiding superlatives whilst still explaining how seriously good an album it really is. It’s 41 minutes of typically a-typical Bowie. If The Next Day was a conscious hark back to the accessible pop rock days of yore, Blackstar is it’s mirror universe sibling. Here, Bowie consciously goes an entirely other way, and releases a trippy jazz fusion album as his swan song, and it’s great.
Your first run through Blackstar can be weird. It feels, initially, as an orgy of dissonance. Bowie has formed a superb jazz band around himself and saxophone player Donny McCaslin, and the latter features front and center on this record. If you go in unprepared, your first thought could very well be something along the likes of, ‘man, where to start?’ You have to work in order for Blackstar to work. This is an album that takes a good sitting to really get into, and for its secrets to unfold. There is fruit to pick on this tree, if you just make an effort to reach out high enough to grab it.
Starting with the title song, an almost ten-minute long avant-garde jazz epic. The second-longest track Bowie ever released (ranking just behind Station to Station), this multi-faceted beast creeps and writhes and crawls under your skin, with its eerie chants. It starts out with creepy electro-jazz before it turns into a haunting piece of pop music, and back again. It’s a song so full of detail, so full of little bits and bobs, that it seems remarkable that it would lodge itself into your head almost immediately, and with such ease as well. It’s a powerful piece of music, not in the least because of the lyrics, which seem to foretell the reaction to Bowie’s eventual demise.
Something happened on the way he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
Blackstar segues seamlessly into ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, an at first glance frantic piece of jazz fusion, as dissonant as it’s interesting, with McCaslin’s sax tearing and screaming where Bowie could no longer. Because if there’s one thing apparent from this album, it’s that Bowie sounds frail and, at times, not the man he used to be. I initially shrugged that off and blamed old age instead of cancer. Lazarus, the second and, presumably, last single is next, and it’s both the standout track on the album and the hardest to listen to since last weekend, since text strophes such as Look up here / I’m in heaven, with which Bowie seems to address his own death quite heads-on. It’s a contemplative, quiet song and a goosebump-inducing combination between lyrics and melody.
Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) returns on Blackstar in an updated version from the original 2014 single (from the 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed). It’s cut down in size to little less than five minutes, and gone are the original orchestrations, eskewed for guitar and drum lines. It makes for a snappier song, even if I prefer the 2014 version (at least, at this moment). Girl Loves Me consists of staccato rhythms and, seemingly, nonsensical lyrics (I’ll be looking forward to what the internet will make of these in the days to come, as theories are already afloat that Where the fuck did Monday go? hints at possible euthanasia). Dollar Days turns out to be the most ‘normal’ song on Blackstar, and reminds a bit of Where Are We Now? from 2013’s The Next Day. The lyrics, again, seem to deal with mortality (If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see). The album ends with I Can’t Give Everything Away, a final, poignant goodbye, ending with Bowie repeating, I can’t give everything away, before the music dies and the record slowly comes to a halt.
Blackstar is more than the 25th album of a legendary artist, that much was apparent from the start. It’s a brilliant piece of work, which one might rank amongst the best or worst he’s ever done, depending on where you stand. Because that’s what Bowie did best; cheat his critics, surprise his audience and kept everyone on their toes by releasing exactly the opposite of what everyone expected of him. Blackstar is that, and much more. It offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a musical enigma, and the album almost feels like it has been thrown into our laps with a sly, almost cheeky, ‘here you go, try and figure this one out,’ before the Starman finally returned home. Farewell, mr. Bowie. Thanks for everything.
Label: Columbia/ISO Records
Release: Out now
- Blackstar (9:57)
- ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (4:52)
- Lazarus (6:22)
- Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) (4:40)
- Girl Loves Me (4:51)
- Dollar Days (4:44)
- I Can’t Give Everything Away (5:47)
- David Bowie – vocals, acoustic guitar, mixing, production, string arrangements, “Fender Guitar” on “Lazarus”
- Donny McCaslin – flute, saxophone, woodwinds
- Ben Monder – guitar
- Jason Lindner – piano, organ, keyboards
- Tim Lefebvre – bass
- Mark Guiliana – drums, percussion
- Kevin Killen – engineering
- Erin Tonkon – assistant engineer, backing vocals on “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”
- Joe Visciano – mixing assistant
- Kabir Hermon – assistant engineer
- Joe LaPorta – mastering engineer
- Tom Elmhirst – mixing engineer
- Tony Visconti – production, strings, engineering, mixing engineer
- James Murphy – percussion on “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” and “Girl Loves Me”
Review by Ralph Plug