“Blackstar” is David Bowie’s 25th album and unfortunately also his last album. The singer succumbed to cancer on January 10th, 2016 after an 18 month battle with the disease.
Before his death, Bowie released two music videos for the album. "Blackstar" and "Lazarus." Strange imagery filled the videos, including a blindfolded Bowie. The videos, much like the album, and even Bowie's death were shocking.
“Blackstar,” released on the singer’s birthday delves into jazz, hip hop, and just a small amount of rock. Yet in true Bowie, there is no real definitive genre to put the album down as.
Bowie always seemed to have his finger on the pulse of music, for better or worse, throughout his career. Always elluding others with his various tastes in music, something he continued up until his death. Reportedly being heavily influenced by Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” and Death Grips. While both influences are not on the surface of the album, they are key to the overall sound.
Bowie is backed by a jazz quintet through the album's eight tracks. “Blackstar” is loaded with saxophone, played by Donny McCaslin, who also played flute on the album. Bowie, besides singing, does provide some guitar work. Almost entirely acoustic guitar, with the possible exception of the song "Lazarus" where he is credited with "fender guitar." However it would have been nice to see Bowie tackle the saxophone, the instrument that got him into rock, one last time.
Although Bowie did play saxophone on an earlier version of the song “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore.” That song along with “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” which featured 15 brass instruments (none of which played by Bowie) was released previously as a 10 inch single. The songs were some of Bowie's best work in recent years. Yet both tracks shine better in their finished form, pulsating in ways the originals never did.
The last track, "I Can't Give Everything" is eerily similar to Bowie's beautiful 1977 instrumental, "A New Career In A New Town." Even featuring an almost identical harmonica through the song. More reason to believe Bowie intended the album to be a gift to his fans, or at least a well planned exit.
The lyrics of “Blackstar” go from the absurd to the downright depressing. Bowie, no matter the style of music or collaborator always had a way with words. Not that his words were always understandable, or that there was any way of knowing it was not just gibberish.
In some of Bowie’s work, the lyrics are nothing more than elevated gibberish with a musical backings. Except on “Blackstar” even the literal gibberish has meaning. Notably the track, “Girl Loves Me," which begins with the lyrics, “Cheena so sound, so titi up this malchick, say.” On deeper looking Bowie is using “Nadsat” the street language found in Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange.”
While the album would still have its merits if Bowie was still alive, all the haunting imagery and bombastic instrumentals proved that to me the first I listened through the album. However it is in the context of Bowie’s death in which the album is elevated to a higher level.
I had a weird moment listening to the album for the first, a feeling which unfortunately turned out to be true. It not only sounded like it could be Bowie’s final statement musically, but that it was the only possible statement Bowie could have made in his exit. The only other time I’ve felt that is when I first heard the trainwreck of an album Lou Reed and Metallica put out a few years ago called “Lulu.”
I find it hard to believe Bowie, who was a fan of the album, didn’t intentionally make the album so overtly a goodbye. His music remains, linked forever with the story of rock and roll. What Bowie left isn’t just an album or two, but a pantheon of music to be picked up, listened to, and spread around the world many times over. “Blackstar” to say the least is deserving of that and much more. As the late great Hunter S Thompson once said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Featured Image: Vinyl album artwork for ★, 2016