This review began as an enthusiastic rave for one of the best albums of David Bowie’s career; it was finished in an altogether more heartbroken spirit.
This review began as an enthusiastic rave for one of the best albums of David Bowie’s career; it was finished in an altogether more heartbroken spirit. There is no way to view Blackstar outside of the context of Bowie’s death. Indeed, as producer Tony Visconti revealed only hours after the news hit, this album was written, recorded and released with the intent of being a “parting gift.” But if the context around the final seven songs released during the star’s life impregnates them with severity and importance, it’s remarkable how well they not only stand up as some of Bowie’s strongest writing, but also how perfectly crafted they are to bear the increased scrutiny of a career suddenly being viewed in mass retrospective.
Take Bowie’s passing out of the equation and this album is still one of the most death-obsessed in a career not exactly short on morbidity. In fact, not since Station to Station, recorded at the nadir of the artist’s cocaine addiction and imbued with the feeling of impending collapse, has one of his records been so forbidding. It’s fitting, then, that the two albums should share some parallels in structure, most immediate the front-loading of an epic and epically anti-commercial opening title track that sounds like a cosmic voyage into a black hole. “Blackstar” begins with cautiously venturing guitar and flute before a military drum and shuddering beats back Bowie’s lyrics of bearing witness to execution in a far-flung village. Saxophone slurs into the soundscape mournfully before the dark energy returns, only for everything to fall out into an elegiac middle passage in which a chiming guitar line scores Bowie’s cryptic self-eulogy. Taken on its own, the song is a breakthrough in Bowie’s career, an experimental masterwork that is so ominous yet compelling that the LP is worth full price for its sake.
But the rest of the album is equally adventurous and ambitious. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” takes its title from the 17th-century play by John Ford about incest and imagines a WWI soldier waging a losing battle of the sexes outside the trenches. Filled with playful role contradictions like “Man, she punched me like a dude,” the song is propelled by front-mixed percussion and arpeggiated sax that sounds more punkish than almost anything he recorded in his proto-punk glam era. Elsewhere, he takes his penchant for lyrical obscurity to self-deprecating extremes, writing in the Clockwork Orange language Nadsat and the underground gay code Polari on “Girl Loves Me.” A re-recorded “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is pummeling, layering squall both analog and digital, more directly adapting “‘Tis a Pity” but turning it into an insoluble collision of lust and deceit that forces out the stumbling humanity of the drama. These three songs are not the sounds of a dying man, or at least not one who’s going without a fight.
Genius, by virtue of being an overused and thus undervalued term, is something of an overrated trait in pop, or at least something to which artists shouldn’t necessarily aspire. Genius is better suited, and far better represented, in classical and jazz, where virtuosity is an expression of the self, a form of honesty delivered through technique. In pop, technique and emotion are typically placed antipodally to one another, and it is often true that raw, undisciplined performance is far more satisfying and empathetic than showy instrumentation or fussy perfection. Bowie is one of a small and ever-dwindled list of 20th-century musicians to ever demonstrate genius in pop form, capable of trying on genres like costumes and wringing from his occasionally ironic adoption of various poses genuine and piercing expressions of longing. His command of skill and emotion can be found even in the charging tunes that make up the album’s middle section, with the ambiguous targets of the two Ford-adapting songs marking himself for criticism as much as any imagined character, and the loopy “Girl Loves Me” reinforcing how he can make utter incomprehension sound very much like confession.
Bowie’s total control is best evidenced, however, on “Lazarus.” A version of the song from his musical about the character from The Man Who Fell to Earth, “Lazarus” traverses just as much terrain as “Blackstar” but does so gently, guiding listeners in by the hand with a gliding guitar melody as lonely saxophone and occasional burst of feedback are buried in the background like the sounds of waves and foghorns from a beach several miles away. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” Bowie intones with his first lyric, and the rest of the song alternates between the cosmic and the quotidian, to the point that even the artist’s ascension to the great beyond is muted in beauty by him dropping his cell phone. You can’t take it with you, of course, but this amusingly seems to irritate Bowie, not out of materialist possessiveness but because nothing is ever easy. It’s the story of a man who comes back to life, from a man about to die, and its reinforcement of Bowie’s canonization makes it an immediate addition to any list of the artist’s essential tracks.
It’s obvious, now, that closers “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are farewells, but it’s worth noting the defiance and perseverance in each. The former is a lovely ballad featuring mainly piano and the occasional two-step chord of the bass, but amid Bowie’s tranquil, resigned lyrics is the phrase “I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain/ And fool them all again and again.” The mordant nature of the passage contrasts its Bowie’s commitment even to the end to surprise people and duck expectations. Meanwhile, the finale uses its title as a last confession, Bowie’s admission that he kept his private self secluded not for artistic purposes but because even this icon who shared so much could be afraid to reveal himself.
But if he can’t give us everything, Bowie comes damn close. It is nothing less than an act of generosity to devote one’s final months to crafting, with care and precision, one last work for fans. But then Bowie, for all his aloofness and detachment, was always generous, be it with fans, family, or the long list of collaborators whom he not only boosted but occasionally saved. Blackstar will go down as one of the great Bowie albums, not simply for emerging on his deathbed but for the strength of its focus, the scale of its ambition and the clarity with which he incorporates swooning, sinister jazz with contemporary production and emerges with a quintessential statement. It completes the movement begun with The Next Day in returning Bowie to prominence and a feeling that he could not be stopped. And now he’s gone. It recalls the exchange between a reporter and Jean-Pierre Melville in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless: “What is your greatest ambition in life?” “To become immortal, and then die.”