David Bowie’s 2013 album ‘The Next Day’ broke a ten year silence. It was released with a huge fanfare, but absolutely no build up. That an artist of Bowie’s stature could complete an album in absolute secrecy is surprising. That he managed to do so in a world that’s constantly connected via an internet of rumours and with a media reporting every notable (and often less notable) celebrity’s every cough is astounding. ‘The Next Day’ was a good, but sometimes ordinary album. Its follow up, ‘Blackstar’ – released at the beginning of 2016 – is anything but ordinary. This, Bowie’s twenty-fifth (proper) studio album, is his darkest since 1995’s ‘1.Outside’ (the first chapter of the subsequently aborted Nathan Adler Diaries). It would be easy to say it is also his coldest work since the Eno-drenched second side of ‘Low’, but despite the darkness, ‘Blackstar’ is often touching in its bleakness. It’s low-key songs are riddled with refection and emotion, the final public words of a legend about to say goodbye to the world. But, of course, on the 8th January – the album’s official release date – this was not clear to anyone except David and those very close to him.
Just two days after the official release of ‘Blackstar’, Bowie lost his battle with cancer. His passing came as a shock to his fans. With David gone, the dark parts of ‘Blackstar’ take on a new reverence – previously a few of the lyrics stood out as a possible career curtain call, but as listeners, we never suspected this was a farewell to the world, and yet, there it is, hidden in plain sight. The repeated refrain of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” that provides the heart of ‘Girl Loves Me’ sits somewhere between anger and disbelief at the passing of time; ‘Lazarus’ is so clearly the philosophical thoughts of a man who knows his time is up very soon (“Look at me, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that cannot be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now.”) and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ makes stark references to mortality (“I know something is very wrong…With blackout harks flowered muse, with skull designs upon my shoes.”) Each one a lyric with a very pointed purpose.
Perhaps the biggest surprise when hearing ‘Blackstar’ for the first time is how different it sounds. There are passing resemblances to prior Bowie albums – most notably the instrumental elements of 1993’s ‘Black Tie White Noise’ and the more indulgent parts of ‘1.Outside’ – as well as couple of very knowing nods to the past – but, in truth, and for the most part, it sounds like nothing Bowie recorded before. The only thing recognisable as Bowie is the Thin White Duke himself, though instead of cutting a demanding presence and throwing darts in lovers’ eyes, he prefers instead to spend the bulk of the forty minute playing time, mumbling much in the way he did on ‘The Next Day’. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, not ever; in fact, it helps cement his place within a fairly avant-garde work…and while we know it’s Bowie, it really distances this final incarnation ever farther from his world-conquering 1970s personae. The opening title cut – a wandering ten minute affair – really sets the tone. Themes of death and time passing wander in and out of a sinister arrangement. The key changes are eastern in tone, but the end results are closer to a Scott Walker tale of woe than anything your average rock musician would churn out in the name of culture. The clean toned tinkles jar against a bass that’s as frighteningly deep as that of Bowie’s previous ‘Wedding Song’, but whereas that clearly celebrated union, this marks a passing. Bowie’s voice wavers, almost the least important factor in the whole arrangement. Adopting a high tone, he wanders through lines about execution, while a rhythm track recalls the dance experiments surrounding his fiftieth birthday and the release of ‘Earthling’. Occasional sax squonks as if to suggest more artiness – and a forebear of what’s to come – and everything collides in a way that separates the more patient listener from those looking for a hook. Then, at almost exactly the halfway mark, Bowie and band embark on what appears to be an entirely different tune. Measured beats, warm bass sounds and occasional woodwinds make a bigger feature of the eastern promise; Bowie’s vocal sounds more assured, coming with studio trickery and multi-tracking, while the slow beats kind of envelop everything – listener included. Barely shifting from its original intent, it’s only the jazzy saxophone sounds that eventually break the spell and as everything falls apart via a few electronic noises, it’s clear this album is already something special. …And what’s more, that epic opener has already accounted for approximately one quarter of the playing time.
‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ instantly brings something more upbeat. In musical arrangement only, mind, since the bitter lyric keeps the number well within the album’s blackest prism. The huge drum loops dominate, the bottom end brings a huge booming sound, but despite feeling like something that nods back towards ‘Earthling’, everything else is markedly different. Different enough, indeed, to make it sound as if Bowie has been rather obtuse and forced too different pieces of music together. Is he testing his audience, or did he hear this in his head first? Either way, it’s a difficult listen…and easily ‘Blackstar’s most challenging, despite having the most energy and musical drive. Against the beats, acclaimed saxophonist Donnie McCaslin parps several loose musical motifs, eventually climaxing with a long descending note that just disappears – its broad scope and looseness most fitting of everything here – while David taps into a vocal that jars against everything. An arty croon at play, comparisons again could be made with Scott Walker, thanks to Bowie’s choice of register, much lower than any remotely similar deliveries of his past…and particularly those from ‘Diamond Dogs’. It’s easy to single this out as ‘Blackstar’s weakest offering, yet at the same time, the change in pace and confronting of the listener seems absolutely necessary.
With the arrival of ‘Lazarus’ comes one of the album’s crowning glories, and one of Bowie’s best post-80s numbers. The thoughtful arrangement, lodging itself somewhere between art rock and trip hop, is yet more proof that David always sucked in influences from a broad musical spectrum, like the keenest musical enthusiast, but was then able to add his own twist. More bass, a slow rhythm track and hazy mood instantly recalls the best of Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’ as well as ‘1.Outside’, but a mid-range and almost reflective performance lends everything a rather sombre air. Another song about death, this more pointed than before, David is telling us in his own coded way of what we should expect. A guitar clangs a slightly off-key riff against a huge drum, but anything discordant is counterbalanced by a smooth sax. It could descend into easy listening, but the dark mood prevents it from ever doing so. This piece is warm and harmonious and should be gentle, but the unease of the protagonist cuts through almost every bar: semi-autobiographical works seldom sounded more prophetic. ‘Sue (or In a Season of Crime), on the other hand, makes no such pretences of melody; instead, it just throws the listener into a chaotic musical whirl that reintroduces the big beats – this time with clever self-references to ‘Battle of Britain (The Letter)’ [from 1996’s ‘Earthling’] – and wavering sax echoes. Bowie, always at the centre of the musical typhoon, as if he’s able to control it by his own hand, croons achingly as if he’s reading aloud a letter to a loved one. His performance here is among ‘Blackstar’s least accessible; if ‘I’m Deranged’ had come with more thought – and, indeed, an over-hanging shadow of the artist’s mortality – it might’ve sounded like this. At the point where Bowie croons “goodbye”, it’s almost chilling. From here, there’s no way but forward; the dark world of ‘Blackstar’ comes with no easy exit.
Another quasi-upbeat number, at least musically, ‘Girl Loves Me’ is much simpler. A synthetic musical heartbeat kicks things off to reveal a track with a slow riff and perhaps a grudging nod to rock. The ensuing five minutes lurch with menace as Bowie repeatedly and pointedly asks “Where the fuck did Monday go?”, his aggression occasionally sounding more like a questioning bewilderment. This is a terrific hook – the only instantly obvious one within these seven numbers – but that’s utterly necessary in this case since the bulk of the verses are made up of Clockwork Orange slang. It all becomes (in equal parts) jarring, fascinating and difficult, especially hearing Bowie sound at his most upbeat, vocally. ‘Dollar Days’ brings a blend of bass and clean toned guitar in an intro that, for the most fleeting of moments, sounds not unlike ‘Space Oddity’, before shifting into a pop-ish number that wouldn’t have necessarily been out of place on 1999’s ‘Hours…’. With another of his softer voices, Bowie is heartbreakingly philosophical; he suggests he’ll “never see the English evergreens” as well as repreatedly telling us he’s “dying too”, and all before giving us a very masked clue as to what he thinks of an afterlife (“Don’t believe in just one second round”). The band, meanwhile, give this the kind of send off that thoughtful reflection needs; the mix of bass and crisp acoustic guitars is marvellous, while the theatrical key changes in the chorus bring out the best in the tinkly piano notes in the right speaker channel, whileMcCaslin’s sax work owes more to Dick Parry’s work with Pink Floyd than any jazz recordings. While not a track that’ll necessarily stand out on first listen, ‘Dollar Days’ soon reveals itself as a pivotal moment on this final journey.
Closing the album, ‘I Can’t Give Everything’ is smoother than most, working a blanket of synths over programmed drums. Bowie, meanwhile, finds a soft and reflective croon. It’s the sound of a man who has come to terms with his fate. The saxophones add plenty of colour and – in accessible jazz terms – represent McCaslin’s best work here, but much like ‘Lazarus’, Bowie makes certain we’re not lulled by any of the resultant music. His accompanying lyric is like a smart and cryptic, art-school equivalent of Queen’s ‘The Show Must Go On’. Freddie’s tale took the obvious theatrical route, making sure we understood the message, while the ever obtuse Bowie teases us by keeping so much back and occasionally letting out barbs such as the aforementioned skulls on the shoes and how he’s “seeing more but feeling less” – probably a reference to knowledge gained with sixty nine years, but also numbed by the weariness of age. There’s also an extra sense of hindsight thanks in no small part to a reworked riff from ‘A New Career In a New Town’ [from 1977’s ‘Low’]. It’s such a sombre parting gesture, but so poignant. For the sharp thrills and the good times, of course, we’ll always have ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘Ziggy’…and hell, for those that way inclined, there’s always time to re-don those red shoes and dance the blues or hear Bowie’s tale of a police motorcyclist.
David Bowie was many things to many people. He didn’t always get it right, but when he did, the results could be amazing, often uniquely the work of Bowie – imitated by many, superseded by few. ‘Blackstar’ proves this theory more so than ever: it is an album that defies the age of the creator; it’s not easy listening; nothing is radio-friendly and it certainly doesn’t come with a safety net like so much other music created by Bowie’s closest peers. It’s all the better for it. The brilliance of ‘Blackstar’ runs deeply. He knew it would be his swansong, so therefore he knew it had to make a genuine statement…and it truly does. Potentially terrifying to those who loved Bowie for his electric blue suit and domination of the singles chart in the 80s, ‘Blackstar’ is a multi-layered work, a work that – like the finest jazz, or perhaps The Beatles’ much lauded “white album” – takes longer to really appreciate and reminds us that music is art and, just sometimes, can only be treated as such.