Reviewer’s Note (I was in the midst of reviewing this album when the news was announced that David Bowie had left us. I was already enthralled with the album before his passing and would tell anyone who would listen that it was a phenomenal recording. Undoubtedly I would have rated it a 9/10 or 10/10. In a departure from the norm, I submit this review with no rating in honour of Mr Bowie’s untimely passing; the album was a masterwork before the sad event and always will be.”)
There is always so much anticipation for a new David Bowie album. Taking into consideration that this was his 25th studio release, many listeners wondered what lay in store. If the experience was anything to go by, it is always best to expect the unexpected from the master of reinvention. On January 8, his 69th birthday, David Bowie released Blackstar the follow up to his 2013 album The Next Day. Blackstar was an entirely different album loaded with luscious experimental jazz and splendid rock sensibilities where The Next Day delivered what the public had come to expect from his releases. Bowie was walking a tightrope of sorts mining the brilliant past while not being at all derivative on this release. It was clear from the very first notes that on Blackstar Bowie was taking the attitude that he had nothing to lose. The reason for taking that attitude would, in a short time become apparent. He knew this was his last album and he intended to make it unforgettable.
Blackstar was recorded at The Magic Shop and Human Worldwide Studios both in NY/NY, with Bowie and long time associate Tony Visconti producing. The recording was started immediately after the completed sessions for The Next Day. There was literally no time to lose. Bowie set up with four new collaborators; a jazz quartet of momentous gifts; Danny McCaslin on saxophone, flute and woodwinds, Jason Lindner on piano and keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on bass, Mark Guiliana on drums and percussion with Ben Monder assisting on guitars. James Murphy also lent his stellar hand on the percussion for ‘Sue’ and ‘Girl Loves Me.’
On Blackstar, what was apparent from the first listen and became more concrete with each pass was the element of band-oriented sound. This was not just a sonic exercise where Bowie plugging in hired musicians but instead there was a palpable synergy between Bowie and the band. Purportedly the songs sound very much like the demos Bowie initially presented. The tracks were recorded with the band playing together in the studio like a traditional live recording session. The versions of the songs on the album are for the most part first and second, takes. So for all the bells and whistles, the album is fairly organic in creation.
On Blackstar Bowie does a volte-face of sorts. Very few would have predicted that his next album after The Next Day would reach this experimentation level. Seen in context, it becomes clear Next Day was wiping off the slate before Bowie once again charged forth with a full-frontal attack lyrically and musically one last time. He contorted what had been and what was now occurring into something spellbinding. Like a master craftsman he was setting himself one last challenge; to take a melancholy dénouement make it cohabitate with jazz experimentation and have it all conform to modern rock sensibilities. This herculean task would also have to be accomplished while time was rapidly slipping off the clock. Bowie ever the consummate maestro accomplished his task with spectacular panache and gritty determination.
There is an inherent inscrutability within Blackstar as if Bowie was trying to transmit a hidden message to the listener but at the same time withholding the main clue. The album starts with the title song, and it kicks off with an ethereal sound laden with off-kilter guitar and looped drum. Bowie’s haunting voice is barely tethered to the Earth. The first third of the song is like entering a cathedral for a requiem of sorts. The saxophone work is so pristine and a fantastic sonic character that seems to embody a spirit hovering above the action. The solitary candle that is a central feature in the lyric can be equated to the soul delicate but eternal. The song is briefly ghostly and interstellar then breaks into a “Ziggy” glam rock styling in the middle section. Here Bowie in a stream of consciousness state reliving his past as he reviews his various personas and repeatedly states “I’m not a rockstar, I’m a Blackstar”.
The song again shapeshifts back into the intro passage’s styling now marked by a slowing down and a heartbeat-like drum. There is an underlying sense of foreboding and something eminent coming. The out of kilter beat at the end of the song and the twittering machines eerily giving out seem to represent expiration. Blackstar is the longest track on the album but effectively draws you into yet another world Bowie is creating. It is all the best colours on Bowie’s palette in one song. With his passing the key to better understanding this song arrives and the pieces, if not entirely, fall into place.
The title of ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ is taken from the 1600’s English Playwright John Ford’s play of the same title. The play was about an incestuous affair between a brother and sister where love turned to murder as the brother killed the sister. The song begins with a tremendous rock vibe. The saxophone again expresses so much emotion in the song and reminds the listener of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” era. Bowie with Danny McCaslin on the saxophone perform a captivating duet. There is an ebullient joy to this song as Bowie whoops it up having the time of his life and in hindsight, it is a thrill to hear him so obviously enjoying his performance on the track. A question to ponder is if Bowie was providing another clue when referencing the playwright John Ford. Ford is considered to be the last great dramatist of the Renaissance. Was Bowie drawing a parallel between himself and Ford, as he knew he would also be bringing about the end of an era with his death? We may never know.
‘Lazarus’ in many ways, seems to begin the farewell officially. It is dramatic and lyrical with a lovely opening guitar chord. The song is soaring and goosebump-inducing. The horns and bassline are stellar and so well-conceived to deliver the mood. A lyric like, ”Look up here I am in Heaven” took on so much meaning this week as does “just like that bluebird Oh I’ll be free, hey that is just like me.” The song reflects a man who knew the road was coming to an end and had no regrets just a sense of freedom in his last days and in the music he was creating. The song is totally heart renting in context to events. It ends with a kind of clap of musical thunder and is gone.
‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ is atmospherically industrial in sound with a heavy, gritty guitar and drums driving a frenetic tension as the saxophone swirls over the top. There is a feeling of urgency, and almost anger as Bowie relays the lyrics as if in a fevered dream where it is possible to lose a day as expressed in the lyric, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” It is the lyric; “Sue, the clinic called the x-ray is fine, I brought you home.” that brought a paused on the first listen. I understood the prior Lazarus analogy, the figure of death and the resurrection but was brought short by referencing a clinic and waiting for results. A spine-tingling chill was induced with a simple line that conveyed an understanding of the agony of waiting for results. With this one lyric, he head faked the listener. In the song, the result is just a momentary health scare, when in reality, his own results were far from fine. Upon the news of his passing, this lyric sprung to mind and the penny dropped. Here was part of the message he was attempting to telegraph, his intention all along was goodbye.
‘Girl Loves Me’ is almost a denial of the prior conclusion, inspired by one of his favourite books and movie, “Clockwork Orange”. It is a song filled with hubris and a tight tension-filled track with a tug of war occurring between free jazz stylings and rock constructs. It has many elements of classic Bowie tunes woven into something brash and engaging. ‘Girl Loves Me’ is a sophisticated creation that seemed to belie the farewell message on many of the other songs. It also contains a feeling that Bowie was again thoroughly enjoying himself making the song as his vocal soars in the chorus as if thrilled for a chance to let loose.
‘Dollar Days’ has been the most difficult song to listen to since Bowie’s passing. He seems to be emphasizing the lessons he always knew, that little else matters, not money or fame, in the end, doing what you love and giving and receiving love from those around you is all. Besides, niceties don’t matter when you’re fighting for your life against a cruel, unfair adversary. There is still his defiance, “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all, again and again, I’m trying to.” When it is reported that he battled cancer, I fully believe he gave it nary an inch and that intestinal fortitude is reflected in this song. It is evocative and filled with beautiful piano work and a mournful sax solo. The song fades off into the vapour and then segues into ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away.’ This smooth rocker again displays Bowie as the ever debonair performer he always was, no matter the persona he was wearing at any given time. The music is up-tempo and filled with energy, but the lyrics will break your heart. He mentions various contradictory feelings and the lyric “I know something is very wrong” is difficult to listen to. There is a lust for life and an understanding of life’s ultimate finality being just around the corner. Once again if you listen carefully, you can hear the joy expressed in his voice that he is doing what he wanted. There is poignancy in his not giving in and fighting to complete his last musical manifestation. The final song ends with a bang and not a whimper, defiant to the last against that bastard named Death.
In the last week, the album’s inscrutable nature has suddenly cleared with the news that the Zeitgeist that was ever embodied in David Bowie had left us. In many ways, Bowie lovingly created this album as a farewell to his fans. Blackstar is the result of his determination to enjoy the time he had left doing the thing he loved; creating music in complete freedom with no constraints other than the time left on the meter. It was a masterwork before the sad announcement. Two things should give fans some comfort; he knew how well the album was received critically and could easily see it would be popular commercially after his passing. Additionally, he also knew that Blackstar could earn that praise and popularity not out of a sense of pity but straightforwardly on its merits alone. The other comfort is that in a way he is Lazarus, every time someone hears a Bowie song it will be like he is once again back among us, if only for the length of the song. With his passing, I am gutted. He is gone too soon, farewell dearest Thin White Duke; you were always legendary now you are legend.