Editor’s Note: This Blackstar review was written before the tragic death of one of the greatest musical minds of all time. In this article, I will explore the album itself, and what it stands for after Bowie’s passing.
DAVID BOWIE isn’t as elusive as he once was. After the ten year hiatus prior to the release of 2013’s The Next Day, Bowie has been around, occasionally popping up in star studded music videos, Arcade Fire records, and the ‘rumours’ list for Glastonbury Festival, as well as releasing another ‘Greatest Hits’. It’s been no secret that Bowie was looking to follow up The Next Day relatively soon, so the release of Blackstar doesn’t come as a surprise. What is surprising, however, is the actual content.
With Blackstar, there’s a definite feeling that Bowie has the confidence to do whatever the fuck he wants. If The Next Day set the scene for Bowie’s return to form, with songs not a million miles away from his classic material, Blackstar is the twisted journey that follows. If you’re unfamiliar with Bowie, Blackstar is definitely not the place to start. This album is more indulgent, more experimental than Bowie’s classic material, almost like a treat both to himself and his hardcore fans.
But that doesn’t make Blackstar any less enjoyable to those who have merely dabbled in say, Ziggy Stardust, or Hunky Dory. This album is seven tracks of sprawling, surrealist excellence. Bowie’s inclusion of (plenty of) saxophone is a welcome change, accompanied by distorted vocals and avant-garde synthesizers creating layer after layer of art rock poetry. What’s interesting is that Bowie claimed Kendrick Lamar’s latest record inspired Blackstar, but it must have been a very light inspiration as nothing on this album sounds remotely like To Pimp A Butterfly.
But it doesn’t matter that this album doesn’t sound anything like TPAB, it’s damn good in its own right. The title track opens the album with dreamy guitar and strings before introducing an erratic drum beat and passionate saxophone solo. The song becomes more avant-garde before gaining momentum with pounding drums and Bowie’s heavenly vocals, his distorted cry proclaiming “I’m a blackstar!”
‘Girl Loves Me’ is a personal favourite. Bowie’s vocals have layer upon layer of reverb laden onto them, letting his haunting cries fade into the distance over a patchwork of strings and rapid drum beats. It’s both hypnotising and disturbing. Then there’s the sombre and melancholy ‘Lazarus’, with its dreary guitar and saxophone drones set the tone for lyrics that pine for freedom and power.
Unfortunately, the songs written before the concept of Blackstar came to be, ‘‘Tis Pity She Was A Whore’ and ‘Sue (Or, In A Season Of Crime’) are the only tracks that don’t quite fit the overall musical themes. They’re not bad tracks, far from it, but feel like added extras on an otherwise coherent album. It’s a shame, but the mysticism and surrealism of Blackstar fails to penetrate these numbers. Still, a Bowie song that’s not quite as good as the others is still better than a lot of artists’ best songs.
Closers ‘Dollar Days’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ flow effortlessly into each other. The beautiful and nostalgic ‘Dollar Days’ is pure and simple Art Rock at its most chilled. It sees Bowie pining for England like a man devoid of hope and running from his past. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is slightly more pacing, with a synth-based beat and Bowie’s crooning vocals sailing excellently over it.
Blackstar is a very enjoyable record. Bowie successfully demonstrates why he is one of the most diverse and lauded musicians in history. The music may be trying at times, but it really pays off with every listen. Bowie’s voice sounds great and the lyrics match the futurist nature of the music. If you’re a Bowie fan, or if you just like your music experimental, definitely give this record a spin.
Epilogue: From January 10th 2016, Blackstar seems more and more like a closing statement, a swan song if you will. Bowie’s lyrics suddenly become a whole lot clearer, and his apocalyptic music is testament to his ability to shift to the ever chancing musical scene. Blackstar is short, concise and to the point; it’s one last musical gem from the man who had already given us Hunky Dory and Low. And like those albums, Bowie sounded amazing; his voice was raspy, mature with age, but still with enough quirk that we knew it as Bowie. His compositions sprawled from art rock, to avant-garde, to jazz. If Blackstar showed us anything, it’s that, even against the odds, Bowie was still a force to be reckoned with.
David Bowie may have left this world, but he’s left us with one of his most diverse, experimental and satisfying albums in recent years, if not of all time.
“Something happened on the day 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.”
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