David Bowie, one of the biggest and best stars to ever grace this planet, was supposed to have his new album reviewed before his passing. Now that he has passed, the listening experience of this album is entirely different compared to how it was before, and makes any review of this album simultaneously easier and harder than prior to his death. It’s obviously harder because this will be the first and last review I ever do of a new David Bowie album, and I want to get it right; it’s easier because the context in which this record was made and the lyrical content now make so much more sense, and are in turn a lot more impactful than before.
‘Blackstar’ is David Bowie’s swan song, it’s a piece of art that shows us all exactly what Bowie felt whilst he’s literally staring death right in the face. It’s also a testament to how Bowie, throughout his life pushed boundaries and continued to try to do so later on in his life. His last album, ‘The Next Day’ was sonically looking into the past while hinting at where he was in his life now. ‘Blackstar’ is Bowie giving one last push within Rock music to make something new and exciting that could be tangible for the future of music like he always has.
Bowie sighted Death Grips and Kendrick Lamar as inspirations while making his new album, both artists in their own respect sonically push boundaries in that they blur the lines between genres – for Death Grips its the blurring of Industrial with Hip-Hop and Electronica, and for Kendrick Lamar it’s Jazz fusion, Funk, Soul and Hip Hop. The blurred lines that these artists create show up prominently on ‘Blackstar’. Bowie’s songwriting is very much rooted in Rock in terms of style, yet he sings over the top of incredibly intriguing and manic percussion on many of the songs such as ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’, which also features these guitar lines that sound like they could have come off of Swans’ ‘To Be Kind’, another band that pushes the boundaries within Rock despite old age. These songs are often shaped in a way that’s similar to how Swans would create tension, building on a repetitive groove until the weight behind it is enormous such as on ‘Girls Love Me’ where he energetically sings in an extremely odd time signature that’s worked into this path of music he has created for himself on this album. The instrumentation doesn’t necessarily have to be typical Rock instruments, but the way in which the instruments and electronics are organised in a way that builds tension on here is rooted in the idea of Rock music.
Although Bowie’s influences can be tracked very clearly throughout this album, he still manages to craft a diverse set of sounds that are very much his own. Although the album is only 7 tracks long, it needn’t be any longer, Bowie packs in so much sonic material that sets the stage up for him perfectly. He uses instrumentation often found in Jazz music such as saxophone and wind instruments and applies them in so many different ways on the album: against drum machines or guitar lines or samples. All the songs are crafted so coherently together with clear vision and it shows prominently on the new edition of the aforementioned ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’. The instrumentation that we heard on the version of the song released last year for his Greatest Hits compilation has been completely changed into something much more haunting and large for the album.
On the song ‘Lazarus’ he uses subtlety to create a dark and brooding atmosphere that paints a picture of isolation and loneliness, especially with his vocals sounding so much more tired than on previous albums. Bowie’s vocals are something that he’s adapted to well as they deteriorated over the course of his career; although they sound tired and thin on a large part of this album, the sonic platform he’s created for himself allows the more emotional side of his vocals to shine through. On other tracks like the title track, Bowie uses his deeper vocals to sound extremely menacing and sinister, this is again helped by the slight electronics and the almost Radiohead-esque dance rhythms that he uses to give the track its backbone.
Sonically ‘Blackstar’ sounds like he’s giving us a final goodbye like on the final two songs of the album. The last track, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ features a harmonica piece taken straight from the song ‘A New Career In A New Town’ on ‘Low’ and when the final note rings out there’s a rush of sadness knowing that it’ll be the final note we’ll ever hear from a new Bowie record. The lyrics that come prior to the album’s close show us a man, whose conflicted with ideas of life and death, and what he has become with the illness that he is facing. On the album’s title track Bowie refuses to define himself as anything other than a ‘Blackstar’, claiming to not be a film star, a gangstar, a pornstar or anything else, just a blackstar. It’s perhaps representative of how he had the courage to be an outsider, or representative of how he feels his illness is defining him, despite his efforts to not let anyone know that he was in fact dying.
There are many premonitions within the lyrics on near on every song guiding us through how he’s feeling at that moment. This includes some odd insight into his timing of death with, ‘where the fuck did monday go?’ being repeated over and over, as well as some deliberately odd pronunciation to provoke on lines such as ‘I’m dying…. to’. ‘Blackstar’ makes you really question how much of Bowie’s music has truly been understood over the years considering he was not planning on giving his audience the context of this album had in fact started recording another album. ‘Blackstar’ shows that Bowie, right until the end, wanted his art to be interpreted how people wanted it to be; he wanted it to provoke; he wanted it to be insightful to the right mind; he wanted art to be truly abstract in order to realise that there is no right or wrong way to interpret art, and ‘Blackstar’ succeeds in all of those ways.
Best Tracks: Blackstar, Girls Love Me, Lazarus