Music Review: Blackstar by David Bowie (2016)

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Release: 8 January 2016

With the news of David Bowie’s passing, I was quite heartbroken, but I know I was not alone in this feeling. People across the globe were suddenly swept up by a completely unexpected sense of loss. But what I found the most difficult, was I couldn’t imagine a world without David Bowie. He has been a reasonably large part of my life, my entire life. I was child listening to David Bowie on my father’s stereo, and though I didn’t think much of it at the time, it has made a huge impact on me and my musical preferences. I can’t listen to many David Bowie songs without being filled with nostalgia. It isn’t fair of me to be too caught up in sadness over a man I didn’t know, I feel worse for his family, whose sadness is surely much greater than my own. What I have decided to do is that I will count myself lucky for living in a time when David Bowie was making music, and having the opportunity to listen to his entire discography. Having spent some time exploring his albums I can’t think of a better final album than ★ (Blackstar). He has had arguably the greatest career in music and this year, just days before his death, he had the chance to release one final album. Blackstar is seen as his swan song, and while it is great in its own right, it is filled with incredible implications in the context of his death. It is a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into the mind of someone so influential, facing their own mortality. This album is something that will be talked about and studied for years to come.

The album was first announced as a more experimental and a more jazz influenced album. It sounded like an exciting new direction for such a huge musician. After the excellent release of The Next Day, Bowie-mania was alive and well, again. This new direction seemed to be largely welcomed by fans, and the highly anticipated release didn’t disappoint. It was a remarkably short window in which the album was viewed outside the context of his death, and I heard nothing but praise. I, myself, was giving it nothing but praise. With the bombshell of his death, something changed. The album had only been out for two days and suddenly all the imagery and theming of the album took on a much darker tone, the album became much more than just a new direction. It became the culmination of a brilliant career and an honest and heartfelt examination into the mind of someone knowingly facing their last days. While the tracks are experimental for David Bowie, they are still incredibly addictive and accessible. Blackstar is a potentially revolutionary movement at the end of a revolutionary career. It is unique in sound and, without a doubt in my mind, will be seen as a classic.

The Tracks:

“Blackstar” – Though it wasn’t the first single from the album, it was the first real glimpse of what this album was about. The two previous singles sounded similar to those released on The Next Day. “Blackstar” is the track to really embrace the Jazz stylings and increased experimentation. This is probably the hardest track to digest at first listen, but it is incredible. It eats away at you, it infects you. Through all its weirdness, it breaks through sonically, instrumentally, lyrically, in many ways it sticks with you. The song’s lyrics deal with some dark imagery, single candles (which implies surrounding darkness, and soon consuming darkness), facing execution (much like he was facing his death), having his mantel taken up by someone else after he dies (which happens to everyone), and finally the comment “I am a Blackstar”. If rumors are true and a blackstar is a reference to cancer lesion on a scan, then this lyric is by far the most heartbreaking. David Bowie says “I am a Blackstar, I’m not a film star”, which I imagine is his whole life coming down to his cancer. He isn’t a film star, he is just his cancer. All his fame and influence are nothing when it comes to illness, nothing can protect him. To think of someone as great as David Bowie reduced to his cancer. The last movement of the song seems to be a comparison of his greatness, his influence, his fame, his work all being nothing compared to the end. It is a Danse Macabre, death will make equals of us all.

“’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” – There isn’t as much for me to examine here. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is not as noticeably deep and seems to actually more of an extension of The Next Day sessions. It is a great song, almost as great as anything on The Next Day. It has a great beat and though it has a different (more normal) sound to “Blackstar” it seems to fit in well here. “Blackstar” is a journey, and “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is a short reprieve. A more classic styled song, breaking up the more experimental tracks.

“Lazarus” – Before his death, the symbolism of a song titled “Lazarus” wasn’t nearly so interesting. Lazarus being the man brought back from the dead by Jesus. To a man facing his death this is a much more hopeful idea. He makes references to being in heaven and having nothing else to lose, clearly dwelling on his impending death. I feel he compares his freedom as being free from the shackles of life, and this is a very ‘David Bowie’ idea as he has always been seen as being otherworldly, and perhaps now he truly is. My final thought it maybe his resurrection comes from his music, though he dies, it is through his work and his influence that he will continue to rise from the dead; though I would prefer this to be a prediction for a zombie David Bowie reunion tour.

“Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” – A bit more experimental than “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” but from the same recording session and inspired by the same play. It seems to be an earlier track that does fit better here than The Next Day, and helps to tie “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” to this album. This track’s lyrics are quite dark as well, but don’t seem focused on his own death, but rather on saying goodbye. It is a strong track, but not quite as strong as the previous three.

“Girl Loves Me” – This was my early favorite from the album. The nadsat (the language from A Clockwork Orange) seems to fit the albums styling and the songs simplicity so well. It makes many slang references to various actions throughout the week and then wondering where all the time went. Living day by day and seeing it all disappear, symbolized by the line “Where the fuck did Monday go?”. The title “Girl Loves Me” might be references that throughout all these disappearing days it is our loved ones and shared love that really sticks with us. It all blurs together and vanishes before we know it, but it is our moments of love that we remember. I think what makes this song so sad is that same line “Where the fuck did Monday go?” especially with David Bowie dying on a Sunday.

“Dollar Days” – A beautiful and soft, Jazz styled track. It is somber and really feels like David Bowie coming to grips with his death. Wanting more wanting to reach those “English evergreens, (he’s) running to”, wanting to “fool them all again”, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. He won’t, he is dying but trying to live out his last days, to keep moving forward despite knowing he won’t ever reach that goal he is pursuing. It is sad, but feels strangely accepting and peaceful.

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” – A flashback to my favorite David Bowie album, Low. It features a shares some instrumentals with the track “a New Career in a New Town”, which is about moving on to the next place, the new town, the new project, but now with his death seems to be moving on from life. He has given almost everything he has to music, to his projects, but can’t give everything. People want so much from him, but he has given all he can, and now it is time to stop and move on. A tearful close to an incredibly sad album, that will be forever seen in the context of his death.

These are just my thoughts about the album, different people will read different things, and see it in a different light. I find the whole idea amazing and a bit overwhelming. Due to the context and message, this might be one of the greatest albums ever released. It is amazing from start to finish and gives an incredibly honest look at the mortality of a music giant, of one of the most influential musicians to every live. The world is a far darker place without David Bowie, but I know that I will always cherish this terrifying yet beautiful parting gift he has given us. It deserves 5 out of 5 stars. Good luck in the great beyond David Bowie. RIP.

 

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