RIP to the man, legend, icon and enigma: David Bowie. A man who was the physical embodiment of the word ‘extra-ordinary’. A man who has held such influence in music and popular culture throughout his career due to his unparalleled ability to create, innovate, and re-invent music. His unexpected death leaves the entire world in mourning, and casts a dark shadow over his 28th and final album, ‘Blackstar’, a fitting and highly engaging finale to Bowie’s long and creatively lucrative career.
The year is 1972, and according to Ziggy Stardust’s proclamation the starman “would love to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. Fast Forward forty four years on and Blackstar, the title track, sounds like the Starman has finally descended to earth to destroy human minds. One could be forgiven for thinking Bowie’s aging had caused his creativity to diminish slightly, after the surprise release of ‘The Next Day’ in 2013, which despite being a good album, was a tad safer than many of Bowie’s albums. With regular producer Tony Visconti’s slick production, as well as Saxophonist Donny McCaslin glowing performance, not to mention help from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, a vivid and extra-terrestrial sounding record has been produced, sounding exactly like a Bowie album should, completely individual. ‘Blackstar’ is a return to Bowie’s conceptual, eccentric best.
The epic ten minute title track is split into three main phases, with prevailing eerie electronic instrumentation throughout, as well as a distant saxophone adding a sinister edge, whilst being propelled throughout by a jazzy, driving drumbeat. The vocals throughout the song sound alien, as if they were beamed in from another dimension. The second phase, while more upbeat, sounds like the final lamentations of a forgotten extra-terrestrial, whilst the jarring backing vocals never allow you to lower your guard, setting the scene for the haunting finale of dissonant instrumentation, giving the impression of alien howls.
‘‘Tis a pity she was a whore’ continues on a similar melodic note, with a driving rhythm section and manic electronic instrumentation building to a frantic ending. The prevailing melancholy nature of the title track is continued on the fantastic ‘Lazarus’, which is carried by the ominous sounding saxophone and a plodding bassline. Distorted, faraway guitar slashes help to punctuate Bowie’s pained vocals, with lyrics like “nothing left to lose” painting a picture of a final cry for help. After David Bowie’s death, the opening line “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars, that can’t be seen” is evidently referring to his unknown battle with cancer, and in this context, makes the already melancholy song quite scarring.
Prior to the release of ‘Blackstar’, David Bowie spoke of the influence of Death Grips on the album. This may at first appear confusing, however listening to ‘Sue (or in a season of crime)’, the influence is evident, with frenetic driving jazzy drums and dense choral electronic instrumentation, with a menacing bite underlying the song constantly threatening to break its chains. Just after the three minute mark the heavy, bubbling electronics do break free of their chains, and it actually sounds like Death Grips have been spawned from Bowie’s brain for a brief period, leading to a finale of crashing drums a storm of electronics.
‘Girl loves me’ is arguably the weakest song on the album, while by no means being a bad song, it seems to lack direction, however, its plodding bass guitar and haunting vocals contribe to the space-stained malevolence of the record. ‘Dollar Days’ is another personal highlight, a brilliant, vulnerable sounding vocal from Bowie combines with a mellow acoustic guitar and the wonderful intertwining piano and saxophone during the intro, to produce a fragile and tender song. Lyrics like “if I never see the English Evergreens I’m running too” and the harrowingly repeated “I’m trying too, I’m dying too”, send a shiver down the spine, particularly following Bowie’s death. The pains of growing old, and now evidently, Bowie’s cancer, are continuous themes throughout the record, with his final ever recorded song aptly titled ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, filled with poignant emotional sentiment. A punchy, electronic drumbeat feeds smoothly into the closing track, a broken-sounding Bowie seemingly pondering over his life, with “I can’t give everything away” repeated throughout the song, grandiose electronic instrumentation, a spiralling saxophone and a muffled, otherworldly guitar solo give a deservedly fantastic finish to the final instalment of Bowie’s brilliant, other-worldly mind.
Blackstar is a return to Bowie’s imaginative best then, a captivating listen owing to Bowie’s almost-perverse obsession with space and his fearless determination to experiment to produce truly unique music. The world has lost a true genius who changed music forever, returning to the stars from whence he came.