David Bowie – ‘Blackstar’ Review

Posted: by Nick

“I’m devastated by the death of David Bowie. We’ve lost a true legend, one who helped shape our culture, ignite our creativity, and who was an inspiration and innovator right to the end, literally.

I’m especially shocked as this news comes on the day we planned to publish the following review of Bowie’s latest (and last) record Blackstar. I’ve decided to release the review as I originally wrote it, without changing anything in light of this terrible news. I hope in that way to offer a pure opinion of the album, which I think is remarkable, without letting the grief this tragedy color his efforts.

Now is a time to look back on the immense and incredible career of this singular artist, and I hope that you will take the time to listen to his final album, as it is so rare we are afforded a glimpse of an artist so close to their departure. Wherever Bowie is now, we can still love and appreciate all his work on our meager terrestrial plane. Thanks for reading, and for listening, and most of all, thank you David Bowie.” – Nick (author of the review).

‘Comeback’ has become a common word of our time – which is strange to say, as the word itself necessitates looking to the past to better appreciate the present. At a time when one of the country’s biggest festivals is making headlines by boasting the reunion of two very different acts (Guns ‘n Roses and LCD Soundsystem) it has become more likely for defunct groups to gather and celebrate their pasts than for established artists to continue attempting to break new ground. David Bowie has been an active and essential figure in music and culture for over 40 years, yet he stands as an exception in our modern world by more than his longevity and prolificacy. The glam rock titan has died many deaths, and been reborn again and again, never one to stay buried long. On his 69th birthday, David Bowie shakes off the ashes once more and reveals his latest form on Blackstar, his most exciting work in some time. This is an album that renders the idea of a ‘comeback’ obsolete. Bowie never left, he only changed masks – or rather tore another one down.

On the epic, almost picaresque opening track, Bowie claims that he is “not a pop star.” Something reflexive happens when you hear him sing those words – a defense mechanism somewhere in your cultural knowledge sounds the alarm, screaming: “of course you are a pop star! You’re David Bowie!” What Blackstar manages to do is break down that wall of defense, note by note, word by word, and show you something new amid the rubble.

It takes a full five minutes of listening to Blackstar until we hear something that sounds reminiscent of the Bowie the world has known and followed for decades. The string-driven, cinematic middle portion of the opening opus is a nod to Bowie’s previous lives in sunnier territory – the swelling saxophones sound like something off Hunky Dory, while the backbeat would fit nicely on Station To Station – but his lyrics defy such nods to his past: you think you know Bowie, but really you know nothing he doesn’t want you to. “You’re a flash in the pan,” he muses, “I’m the Great I Am.” Immediately you are under his control. He is at the “center of it all,” pulling your strings and masterfully manipulating your expectations.

“Blackstar” is one of two singles that were released ahead of the album. Each one granted unique insight into the new direction of Bowie’s 25th (yes, seriously, 25th) studio effort. The single that I found myself latching on to immediately, and which remains one of my favorite movements on the album, is “Lazarus.” This track (which shares a title with a new off-Broadway production Bowie co-wrote) walks the line between subdued and restless – not unlike its biblical namesake. The eerily humanoid saxophone on this track is one of the central elements of the album that connects it back to a bygone era, and specifically to Bowie’s history (the sax was his first instrument and heavily used across his entire discography). The saxophone solo is an old rock and roll trope, here appropriated with some dense and otherworldly character – this isn’t your father’s Bruce Springsteen sax. The act of blending classic rock elements with a post-modern gloom is central to the album’s congruence and potency.

As a whole, the album ebbs and flows brilliantly. The longer, more ponderous songs (like the two aforementioned singles) are followed by more active and kinetic tunes. Just as the songs are balanced, so are the sounds of past and present – the result of the brilliant work of a quartet led by jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin as well as production by long-time Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti. According to Visconti, one of the main intentions of the album was to avoid rock and roll at all costs, and it is in the accomplishment of that goal that many fans may find the album wanting. Still there is much to invigorate even the steeliest of fans. The drums, especially on “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” continue to utilize the jazz-inflected aesthetic, but prove relentless in their snare-banging energy. Percussionist Mark Guillana is an adaptive force to be reckoned with throughout. This flexibility, combined with Bowie’s more reserved and ponderous melodic sensibility is one way the album uses tried and true devices without leaning on a particular formula. 

“Girl Loves Me” is an enigma of a song, nodding as much to hip-hop as to So-era Peter Gabriel. This track adds to the overarching bitterness that seems to pervade the album’s lyrics and vocal approach. Bowie is not pleased here and elsewhere, and this time around its something more than malaise that seems to be itching him. Lines like, “I’m cold to this pig and pug show,” only extend Bowie’s themes of displeasure. Though he may frown upon the world around him, he is not unable to find some beauty in it also. The album concludes with two very strong tracks, coming to a close with “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” a song that makes good on the title’s promise. Bowie seems to pull back thematically, while allowing the music to blossom in his stead. He may not be willing to say outright where the root of his displeasure resides, but is willing to offer a ray of optimism amid the cinereal haze. Blackstar is perhaps, just as Bowie claims, not the work of a pop star – at least not the kind that we recognize in our modern age. It is neither the haunting voice out of the past nor the portentous bellow of an aging soothsayer. It is instead a true artist, something more than a pop star – something that eclipses all such labels. This is uncompromising music inexplicably laid on our ears by an enduring and complex creature whose limits have not yet been set.

Score: 8.75/10

editor’s note: this was written before the news of Bowie’s passing. May he rest in peace.