David Bowie turned 69 on Friday, January 8th, 2016, on that same day he released a masterpiece called Blackstar which shot straight to the top of the Billboard charts and left. Then two days later on January 10th, sadly, he lost his secret battle with liver cancer and left us behind with such a enormous present and no time to thank him.
People who were around in early 60’s have had a chance to know the work of David Bowie from his start as Davie Jones, then on to his successful Bowie albums Space Oddity to Hunky Dory, through his Ziggy Stardust Years, through the glam and glitter, rebirth and reincarnation, reinvention and finally his final(?) form. People who are newcomers have a lot of catching up to do with over 50 years of albums, collaborations and films to discover.
I, myself, am one of those newcomers. I first met the legend on MTV, somewhere around 1997, when I saw him in a music video for his song “I’m Afraid of Americans” with one of my favorite musicians Trent Reznor (NIN). Then was re-introduced when I heard his 1981 collaboration with Queen “Under Pressure” and finally dove in a little deeper over the past few years (overplaying “Life on Mars” quite often). I won’t lie and call myself a fanatic by any means, some of his music grates on me and my preferences, while some loses my interest entirely. That said, with 26 studio albums, countless collaborations and guest vocals, it is very possible to connect with his work and find something that speaks to you somewhere along his life. And if you are truly a newcomer and are looking for a trailhead, Blackstar is a great place to start.
It is almost impossible to listen to Blackstar and not hold it up to the light of his legacy and the emotion tied to his passing. This is partly because the album reads like an accumulation of his musicality and has a subtle foreboding of death. The themes, at face value, can read like a man staring death in the face and sharing mixed emotions of darkness and yet greeting it with a choir of saxophones (there is a lot of saxophone). It is a relatively short album, consisting of only 7 tracks and adding up to 41 minutes and some change despite starting off with a 10 minute song.
The first few listen-throughs I felt like it was too short, wanted more and felt an incompleteness, but the more I listened, the more the 7 tracks felt like the perfect number (yes, pun was intended). The other thing I discovered (and was blown away by) was the use of the mixing to create a soundscape full of depth and movement. I didn’t really pick up on this until I switched from computer speakers to headphones, then I started to hear the way things were mixed to the left and right perfectly to create a depth and the way they faded and shifted mix to create movement. I would definitely recommend listening to the album a few times in a decent pair of headphones if possible. I am sure there are many albums out there mixed this way for a similar effect but this was the first to make me so aware.
The first track, is the title track, the longest track, the most dynamic tack and the wildest track. The beginning of “Blackstar” features erratic breakbeat/drum and bass drums that instantly made me think “Aphex Twin on Xanax”. It starts off vocally and instrumentally with a very Radioheadish vibe (infact one of my friends who overheard it playing asked if it was new Radiohead) and gives way to a saxophone attack. Not a cheesy 80’s saxophone either, it is a very powerful and commanding avant garde jazz saxophone and it is amazing. The song then drops to a hauntingly-beautiful bridge that is a nod to classic Bowie ballad styling and ends back at the beginning but different. It is hard to listen to and is addicting at the same time.
From there each track is a little different in mood and sound. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” keep the upbeat side strong while “Dollar Days” and “Lazarus” (the second longest and one of the most emotionally driven tracks) bring some contrast in tempo but not intensity. “Girl Loves Me” is catchy despite intensely confusing lyrics like “Cheena so sound, so titi up this malcheck”. It has a driving/steady rhythm with alternating punchy and melodic vocals. The pacing of the tracks is laid out perfectly with rises and falls feeling natural and moving the album along nicely. There is plenty of well placed sax and guitar licks creating a great world outside of ours.
The last song starts off like a random dated karaoke track with tinny sax riffs amid electronic drums and dreamy vocals. It is hard to take seriously at first (especially for a modern human being with a short attention span who has been spoiled by technological advances and finds it hard to let go of rigid definitions of what music is). But then he starts singing “I can’t give everything away” (the title of the song) and it hits you that this is the last song of the last album that he ever will release in his life, and my god if it didn’t make me shut my mind the fuck up and just listen to what he was trying to say. I obviously can’t know for sure what the song was meant to convey, but to me it felt like the ending of a note where he is answering every person who ever wanted an explanation for what a song meant, why he was in spandex and heavy makeup, why this persona or genre, what was behind this decision or artistic mood. His answer is a resounding “I can’t give everything away!” Leave it at that, drop the questions and just experience the music without the filters.
Whether Bowie knew that the end was near and this would be his last hurrah or not may never be known for sure. Blackstar comes off that way at times but also can be interpreted as another new phase in his musical career. It is definitely an avante-jazz-tronica-experimental-performance-piece album and will do nicely as a last chapter in a Tolkienesque series of music. It is musically challenging and rewarding, perfectly produced and filled with his character and storytelling genius and is worth a few listens even from those who don’t care for anything that have been currently offered on his vast menu.
Bowie’s death will no doubt bring about a sudden rise in streams of Labyrinth, and a spike the sales of t-shirts with is visage adorned in bright colors worn by fans and fashionistas who may or may not ever have listened to a song of his. Hopefully it will nudge longtime fans to rediscover their love and push Bowie newbs to score their first hit of his visionary artistry. Blackstar is the end of an era and a stellar final note (though there are rumors that he had a vault of unreleased material he planned to let out into the world over the next year or so).
Get your copy of this amazing album wherever you usually do such things and please at least consider listening to it a few times on a good set of headphones (not earbuds). 89 / 100