Blackstar: Bowie Leaves Us With One Last Masterpiece
David Bowie, Photo: Jimmy King
The end is never something any of us want to face. When I received a call while en route to my house from a close friend in New York, the phrase, “David Bowie died” wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. I literally had to pull over. I can’t begin to describe how influenced and affected by the work of Bowie I have been throughout my life. It seems that his last release, “Blackstar,” was his goodbye to us all. Released two days before he left us, the album is one of the most amazing and complex albums you’ll ever hear. In seven songs, Bowie takes us ahead about ten to twenty years with something that we can relish in for many years to come. Containing two tracks re-recorded for the release, “Blackstar” reminds us that even someone who knows that the end is near can leave us a reminder of how amazing they were.
The album opens with the ten minute title track, “Blackstar.” Bowie wastes no time pulling from several eras of work, combining electronica with his deeply rooted love of jazz music and hip hop. The mixture of free form brass and strings that are met with a dual vocal from Bowie coupled with a dark electronic backing track is mesmerizing. The open ended drums that feel closer to something from Art Blakey and Elvin Jones would add to an explosive jazz song make you understand the vision that Bowie had behind the opening track. The bridge, where he changes speed, is done with absolute perfection, while nothing within the song feels dated, but rather closer to something from the future. Like an introduction to a world full of expression and anguish, the repeating line, “I’m a blackstar” hits home that this is goodbye. It’s almost as if he’s telling us it’s okay to let him go. The track clocks in at almost ten minutes, but never feels long winded, but closer to a vignette where Bowie uses varying genres to convey the idea that he’s not long for this world.
He follows this with the re-recorded version of his 2014 single, “Tis’ a Pity She Was A Whore.” The opening drums are met with with piano and brass that feels closer to hip hop, or at least Kendrick Lamar’s recently re-written version of hip hop. Bowie crafts a small free form jazz symphony in the background full of lush brass instrumentation alongside a lingering piano underneath thunderous drums. A backing vocal harmony and keys dance with him as he sings the verse, and that jazz symphony creates an epic and grandiose detour without taking away from the overall vision for the song. Donny McCaslin’s saxophone sounds like it will come off the rails while it leads the song along without entering an abyss of fire, but rather guiding the track like something from another place.
The somber and dark sound of “Lazarus” follows where Bowie seems to sing about what we now know is the end. The vocals feel closer to a retrospective on his life from a man who knows that he won’t be with us much longer. The themes of being free, of letting go, and a life without regret are painfully obvious within the lyrics of the track. Bowie still manages to give us a narrative filled with strong jazz roots and a mixture of dark electronica. Guitars hop on and off the track like piercing needles, while a muddled bassline and a very simple piano track move the song along.
The more rock vibe behind “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” comes in after, and incorporates what makes you think will be a rock song with the guitar riff that opens it. However, the chameleon that Bowie was, utilizes guitar and snappy drums to convey something different than anything he’s done prior. Like a new form of jazz and electronica mixed, synths take you further into the rabbit hole while brass permeates the background. The fusion fueled nature of the bassline and the bombastic drums that meet the varying instruments in the end are closer to something from Death Grips than anything Bowie has done in the past. The vocalized opening to “Girl Loves Me” feels like Bowie almost rapping, which isn’t really the case, but the track does feel like a hip hop song more than anything else. Your ears will fool you with the fact that the instrumentation isn’t in the vein of a hip hop song, yet it’s structured as exactly that. The way it strides along with an almost godlike chorus gives it the feeling of something that Kanye would pen. The lyric, “where the fuck did Monday go” that repeats can’t be lost on anyone now, as if Bowie is lost in the days that are surrounding a time frame that’s full of days that pass quicker than anyone wants.
The somber ballad, “Dollar Days” begins with what sounds like Bowie thumbing through paper, perhaps a lyric sheet. The track that closest resembles his work from the past, the song feels like “Hunky Dory” era Bowie without feeling dated. The soft strum of acoustic guitar that paces the song while saxophone rolls in like it was meant to be there, is met with a sweetly voiced piano and keyboard that dance in the middle between Bowie’s vocals and a quiet drum track. There’s a subtle beauty in the way that Bowie “does” Bowie, in that rather than reliving his past, he just leads with his strong suits and goes back to how he began, with acoustic guitar and soft melody.
The aggressive personality of the final track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” has a finality to itself. The lyrics are written in past tense, the sheer power of the chorus falls heavier now that we know that Bowie knew this was the end carries a weight that cannot be ignored. The dance heavy electronics, the lyric, “I know something’s very wrong,” has more depth now than ever before. The way in which the lyrics are the darkest he’s ever given us while the song has a snappy and upbeat feeling, just show you that once again, Bowie even keeps his goodbyes ahead of the curve.
This is the most straightforward album of Bowie’s career. The magnitude of finality coupled with the mixture of electronics and top notch brass and woodwinds makes it one of his most complex. Where “The Next Day” felt like a rebirth, “Blackstar” feels like farewell while it keeps David Bowie ahead of the rest of the industry once again. The fact that there are tracks that aren’t set in pop single time frames, the fact that he mixes in everything he loved about music, and the fact that all of the lyrics now feel like something darker than anything he ever penned make this the best way for him to leave us. Once again, Bowie is on top. The relevance of the song structures and the terse lyrics make this his most complex release to date, which will always be the best way to remember him.