by Mike Vinti
This review was written over the weekend, when David Bowie was still alive. In light of his death last night, much of the meaning of this album has changed and one can’t help but see this album, released just three days before his passing, as Bowie’s final gift to the world. In this review, no great weight is placed on the allusions to death or nagging sense of dread throughout, the aspects of the album that stand out most today. In my naivety I guess I thought he’d live forever. Listening in light of the news, ‘Lazarus’ especially feels like a resigned goodbye, lines such as ‘I’ve got scars you cannot see’ and ‘just like that bluebird, I’ll be free’ seem to warn the listener of Bowie’s fate and one can’t help but feel like a fool for missing them.
Throughout his career Bowie challenged the establishment, questioning the accepted wisdom surrounding gender and sexuality, breaking boundaries between genres of music and constantly reinventing himself. He courted controversy too, most famously advocating for fascist rule in the UK whilst under the guise of the Thin White Duke, later retracting the comments, blaming them on heavy drug use at the time.
Blackstar is as much a part of his legacy as any album or era before it and fans can at least take solace that our Ziggy’s gone out on a high. It seemed opportunistic to make this piece some great lament and so I’ve decided to keep the review more or less as it was when I first wrote it; Bowie needs no eulogising to live on, his music is enough.
The titular ‘Blackstar’, kicks the album off; its cinematic instrumental building piece by piece as Bowie’s unmistakable voice floats in. “This is classic Bowie” you think, then the drums come in. Scattered and synthetic, they bounce through the track, grooving ominously as Bowie sings of “the day of execution” and “the villa of Ormen”. A synthesiser bubbles alongside them, bleeping and pulsing, evoking the likes of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher as the live instrumentation takes a turn for the paranoid; strings descending, Bowie’s much loved Saxophone honking off beat. As soon as it’s built up it’s taken apart again, a gentle piano melody climbing its way from the murky depths – Bowie is transformed once more, his voice lighter, more melodic. The track shifts again, borrowing some groove from 1975’s Young Americans, the saxophone now tamed as the track’s opening melodies weave their way back in.
Things get moved up a gear as second track ‘Tis a Pity She Was A Whore’ rumbles into being. ‘Man, she punched me like dude’ Bowie laments over the heavy groove of the track, wailing horns competing for space between verses. The track’s meaning is once again convoluted and its lyrics impenetrable, but its core concept plays on John Ford’s seventeenth century play of the same name, using the relationship between the ‘whore’ and a soldier to explore the hypocrisy of war and perhaps even Bowie’s own sexuality.
Next up is the album’s second single, ‘Lazarus’. More closely related to ‘Blackstar’ than its preceding track, its moody instrumental is the most traditional so far, lingering, distorted power chords crashing in between lines. Bowie sounds mournful, his voice strained and lyrics sorrowful as horns whirl around him, transforming the track seamlessly into blistering jazz, reaching a towering peak before the guitars wash back in.
‘Lazarus’ especially feels like a resigned goodbye, lines […] seem to warn the listener of Bowie’s fate and one can’t help but feel like a fool for missing them.
‘Sue (Or in a season of crime)’ is the album’s weakest track. The counterpart to ‘Tis A Pity…’, it retells Ford’s play more directly, with ‘Sue’ playing the role of Annabella, a women besotted by suitors and scorned for rejecting them, blamed for their subsequent failings. Break-beat percussion (courtesy of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy) tears through the track, fused with a driving 70s guitar riff and hints of the experimental Jazz present throughout Blackstar; this is what the Prodigy should sound like. However, Bowie’s vocal performance is frail in places, his melodies slightly clunky, often getting in the way of the staggering instrumental.
At this point it’s clear the Thin White Duke has been paying attention to his new musical surroundings since his return in 2013. Blackstar sounds amazingly contemporary for an artist who has been recording for the best part of fifty years, and I’m not just saying that because Bowie’s producer name-checked Kendrick Lamar as an influence in the album’s promo.
However Lamar’s confidence in working outside of genre does translate onto Blackstar, most clearly on ‘Girl Loves Me.’ A shuffling, heavily electronic joint its creeps its way through ‘classic Bowie’ territory, drawing on the soundscapes of 77’s Low, matching it for experimentation. Yet it sounds totally fresh, mixing in hip hop grooves and strange vocal melodies among the more classically ‘Bowie’ phrases. The lyrics are in Nadsat, the language used in A Clockwork Orange, borrowing the odd word from a mid-seventies gay-club slang known as Polaris, the only recognisable English in the song is the questioning refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?”
‘Girl Loves Me’ is also the only track without a partner on the record. Much as ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ clearly draw on the same themes, and the use of Ford ties ‘Tis A Pity…’ and ‘Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)’ together, the final two tracks on Blackstar work best as a duo.
‘Dollar Days’ is actually classic Bowie this time round, a stirring ballad underpinned one again by Donny McCaslin’s sax, mixing metaphors to ‘push their backs against the grain.’ Its transition into ‘Can’t Give Everything Away’ is faultless. Bowie’s lament continues, only this time with a hint of his 80s disco era underneath, gradually growing more ostentatious and melodramatic as the track goes on. The two tracks are united by a sense of internal conflict and autobiography, a feeling that Bowie’s obsession with death and mortality on this album stretches into his musical life as well as his physical one.
Bowie’s obsession with death and mortality on this album stretches into his musical life as well as his physical one.
That inner conflict is at the heart of this album. The deliberate ambiguity of Bowie’s lyrics and the constantly shifting instrumental influences ironically transform it into a new confidence, birthing one of the most experimental and genuinely challenging albums since his best way back in the seventies.
The Next Day may have won a Mercury nomination and been his first album in ten years (and first of note for twenty), But Blackstar truly feels like David Bowie’s return. It is nothing short of a tragedy that the return was so short.