Reviewed by James Lavender
When I first heard David Bowie’s Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday on Friday 8th January, I developed my own opinions of it and was going to write the review in due course. However, with his sad passing, I cannot write it as I was meant to. The fact is that this is Bowie’s final album; his farewell message to the world; his epitaph. This has meant that this review isn’t just judging the work on its own merits; it will have taken on a bigger significance about how this amazing man changed pop music forever.
The first single off the album and title track, ‘Blackstar’, is a ten-minute long epic which seems harder to pin down than any song recently released. It is a three act track which starts off with an electro-rock beat, complete with a saxophone, then goes into a disorientating acid jazz number which seems to have a vaguely Middle Eastern tune in the background. It is a song which incorporates all different influence; its lyrics are complex and full of meaning; and its ambitious in scale. Essentially, it’s Bowie being Bowie and you wouldn’t expect anything else.
The second track ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ is a more straight-forward mash-up of jazz and modern pop. Only David Bowie could have named a song after a 17th century English tragedy play. This clearly reflects his widespread appreciation and understanding of culture. The third single seems rather apt. ‘Lazarus’, named after the biblical figure who came back from the dead, seems to speak volumes now, with its choppy guitar and atmospheric synths creating a haunting atmosphere. Bowie may be gone, but he has left a considerable legacy, which like Lazarus, lives on after death.
Bowie was the ultimate experimenter, constantly pushing the boundaries in terms of live shows, look and most importantly, music. The whole album resonates with jazz sounds, which is perhaps a nod back to his Young Americans period in the mid-70s. ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ was released as a single earlier last year and that version sounded like a proper jazz song which could have been sung by Frank Sinatra. The album version is more of a fusion, with fast drumming and guitar work, creating a more pulsating version of the song than the initial single release.
It’s not only the Young Americans period which Bowie evokes. ‘Girl Loves Me’ definitely harks back to the electronic sound and ‘kraut-rock’ influences of his Berlin trilogy of albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger. ‘Dollar Days’ features a mournful guitar and its lyrics containing “If I never see” and “I’m dying to” take on a more poignancy given the fact he knew he was dying from cancer diagnosed eighteen months ago. This is especially true on the final track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, which features a repeating dance beat, industrial drums and orchestral arrangements. It sounds like one final hurrah.
So going back to the first listening of the album. My initial reactions where that this was an artist doing what he has done best over six decades; creating innovative pop music which pushes the boundaries of what can be done. I also sensed from his voice and the feel of the album was that this was a man who was getting older and reflecting back on his career and to a certain extent I believe that this is what Bowie was doing. But now I believe that with his death, this album is a parting gift to the world. He was reminding people of why he mattered. If people are still coming to terms with who David Bowie was and why he was so special, go out and listen this album. Then go out and listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, listen to Low, listen to Let’s Dance, just hear this amazing man’s work and you will understand why he means so much to people who love music.
5 out of 5
Key Track: Lazarus