It is a great record, Bowie’s latest – and final – album. And it’s fair enough to buy it and hang on to it for the time-capsule, just because. But getting a fair review of it was never going to be easy – even before he died (just days after its release). The breathless early reviews told everyone that this was possibly his best album, certainly his best in 30 years, one website ranked it eighth on a list of all of Bowie’s albums – premature?
So I tried holding off a bit – and that hasn’t made the task any easier. Also, “Blackstar” really is pretty terrific. Its opening 10-minute title track (and first single) both scene-setter and beguiling new entry point, washing away the taste of all those good-but-not-great albums (essentially everything post Let’s Dance). We know, straight away, that we’re being fired into one of Bowie’s worlds, one of those very special Bowie-created worlds, but we had hints of that on Outside and to a lesser degree, Earthling, and though Heathen petered out and has snuck along with a reputation it perhaps doesn’t quite deserve (now) certainly its opening track told us – and showed us/reminded us – there was magic.
“Blackstar’s” opening does that. Straight away. And as it weirdly, wonderfully slinks along and writhes and twists we wonder what’s coming next – in that very song, let alone the rest of the record…
‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore doesn’t feel too different from something off Black Tie, White Noise but we are conditioned to write that one off. Something in its rhythm reminds me of Jump, They Say. A pretty good song. ‘Tis A Pity is one of the weaker tracks on “Blackstar” – but that’s no indication of failure, more a clue that this is a very good album. But is it a very good album because we now return to it assessing lyrical clues, unpicking those opaque Bowie-stitchings, spotting what was always there but only because we’re glued to it out of morbid curiosity, ceremonial listening?
Second single and album centrepiece, Lazarus, is magnificent. It’s also the death-letter sign-off – thematically and even sonically it is married somewhat to The Next Day’s only true standout song, its first single, Where Are We Now?
Sue (Or In A Season of Crime) take me back to the world of Outside (one of my favourite Bowie albums) but you think, also, that he could have made this album between Diamond Dogs and Station To Station or between Station and Low – and that’s a fine place for this to sit. Girl Loves Me could have come from Outside too, or Earthling even.
And though it’s so easy to slip into comparing these tracks with other highlights, comparing this album with other key records in Bowie’s oeuvre, perhaps what’s most striking about it is the idea that, given his health and other conditions around the making of this album (time very much running out, though apparently none of the musicians and collaborators knew of Bowie’s illness) he was still so focused on making something, where others of his generation just seem desperate to release anything.
I’ve read too much about Bowie lately – and written a lot too – and read too much about his album. But I keep returning to it. Not out of morbid curiosity, but because it’s startling, pleasing, refreshing to hear the inspiration, to know he was inspired and driven to create, to make, to work, to shape something new. Bowie never – really – repeated himself. And even when he overtly took from other places and people he still made it his own. This is not a jazz album – though it includes plenty of (great) jazz musicians. This is not Low part two nor is it another Outside or anything else in Bowie’s career.
If The Next Day felt, self-consciously, like a Return then “Blackstar” is, self-reflexively, a continuation…
It is his final album – and as such would have sold through the roof regardless. But it is also worth your time. There’s plenty (still) to unpack from this. And I can listen to it for Mark Guiliana’s performance (his drumming is a standout here – also I’ve written about him a bunch, across his other projects, he’s one of my favourite players). I’m mesmerised by a lot of the music here, Ben Monder’s guitar playing, Jason Lindner’s piano (giving little glimpses of Mike Garson and Rick Wakeman and some of the other alumni) and the mournful dirge of saxophones on Lazarus, and then the spirited soloing on the beautiful penultimate tracks, Dollar Days, reminds that it was always one of Bowie’s favourite instruments; that he knew how to do interesting things with it – whether playing himself or placing and arranging the work of other, better performers brought in to assist him. (Speaking of favourite instruments, closer I Can’t Give Everything Away features Bowie’s trademark harmonica sound in a fitting farewell, now he’s off – after all – for a new career…in a new town…)
Then there’s his voice. Showing colour and contrast as he creates a character if not ‘for’ each song then certain within each song. As with The Next Day’s one or two shining moments (on an otherwise fairly lacklustre/pass-mark-just album) the frailty in the voice is part of the magic; a new magic.
So it’s Bowie as conceptualist here – as he almost always was, and as was always his greatest strength, whether in writing or performing. Here we hear his ideas, and the way he shaped them, bringing in the right crew – every time – to assist. There’s a lot to marvel at on “Blackstar” and there are no duds, which does, in some sense, make it his most perfect album since Let’s Dance. Because after that he had wonderful moments but no great, complete album. Thanks to its brevity (7 tracks, 40 minutes) “Blackstar” knows it can’t overstay its welcome. It was well on its way to being the most interesting album Bowie had released in 20 years at least. And now it is not only guaranteed of that status but you can imagine some fair-weather fans grappling with this where previously they might not. Bowie would have liked that. He would have loved that I reckon.
R.I.P. David Bowie