David Bowie’s “Blackstar” ****1/2
There’s a long shadow of sadness as I write this review, as it has just come over the wire that legendary David Bowie has died at the age of 69 after an 18-month Cancer battle. This means that “Blackstar,” which was released last Friday will be the last new album released during Bowie’s lifetime. It is worth noting that the album’s release-date was also the artist’s 69th birthday.
“Blackstar” is a dark, expansive, often mesmerizing claustrophobic record. It’s a mere seven tracks in just under forty-two minutes and it begins with a downright spooky ten-minute title-track. This album is not for the passing Bowie fan. It’s strikingly dense and artsy in the most challenging way. As the album progresses, it gets increasingly more clear-eyed in its execution, but along the way we get the now eerily-titled “Lazarus” and a version of “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” which appeared in an extended version on the recent three-disc best-of “Nothing Has Changed.”
Now knowing that Bowie was sick, this album could be seen as a rushed goodbye. Its brevity and its extended grooves seem to hint that Bowie wanted to make a final statement. The creepy hospital bed imagery in the “Lazarus” video released just last week now has a shocking amount of gravity.
This is a very different album on early Monday morning than it was on Friday morning. Before today, it could have been seen as the weird, darkly-hued cousin of Bowie’s last effort,“The Next Day,” now after hearing about Bowie’s ultimate fate, this is an endlessly haunting collection, especially, as he repeats the lyric: “I’m trying to./I’m dying to” on “Dollar Days,” a song that showcases a tragic urgency in his voice.
“Blackstar” is among Bowie’s strangest and darkest albums to date. It won’t please the fans of “Let’s Dance” or even those who casually dig “Ziggy Stardust.” This is a strange piece of sonic art filled with foreboding, ominous lyrical imagery and a strange (but understandable) sense of melancholy. The fact that the album ends with a song called “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is possibly a hint to the artist preparing for death.
In interviews before the album was released, Bowie said that it was heavily influenced by Kendrick Lamar. Indeed with its swirling bits of saxophone, flute and its constantly moving grooves, one can definitely hear that “To Pimp A Butterfly” obviously left a deep impression on Bowie. The album’s hints of dissonance seem to indicate that Bowie may have been listening to D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” as well.
David Bowie was an undeniable legend. At 69, he still had a lot more groundbreaking records to make. He was someone who seemed ageless. Like Tom Waits, he was one of those eternally cool artists who continued to do well with the CMJ crowd even late in his career. As strange as this album frequently is, it recalls a classic edginess that Bowie has maintained throughout his career. Producer Tony Visconti and Bowie have delivered one final collaboration together that has maintained the artist’s uniquely enigmatic sense to the very end.
On this record, Bowie seems still fresh and vital. The fact that this ends up immediately being his final piece of work is heartbreaking. Nevertheless, with the album, Bowie cements his legacy as someone who always challenged his audience and rarely took the easy route. In short, David Bowie was one of a kind. It might be an understatement, but he is a true artist who will be greatly missed.
This definitely begins 2016 on the saddest of notes. Farewell, Starman. May you have a safe trip.
“Lazarus” With an ominous bass-line that recalls both Joy Division and early Cure at their most haunting, this track now comes off like a last prayer and a reflection on the past. Again, its video is quite disturbing and moving at the same time.
“Blackstar” Somewhere in the middle of this track Bowie sings, “Something happened on the day he died. / Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside. / Someone took his place and bravely cried: ‘I’m a Blackstar.’” Like much of this record, this track is a funeral procession of sorts.
“I Can’t Give Everything Away” After all the darkness, this final track feels like a brighter goodbye. There’s reassurance and warmth in its groove. As sad as we are today, this is a reminder that everything may be OK. Bowie has left a tremendous legacy and through his music he will live for generations to come even if he has now left his mortal form. This is one last beautifully sad statement.