I learned of the passing of Bowie after writing this review. He was one of my musical heroes. I am grateful to have spent his last day on earth listening to and reviewing his final gift to the world, “Blackstar.” Let this review be my final thank you to David for the music he has graced us all with. He was truly a star in every sense of the word. May he shine bright forevermore.
“The stars look very different today” – “Space Oddity”
David Bowie has once again indulged in the obscure, and has come out with a masterpiece.
The labeling of “masterpiece” might seems premature, but the 69-year-old Bowie’s new album “Blackstar” fully encompasses everything Bowie’s art looks to achieve: uncompromising expression, enigmatic morals, and innovative musical structure.
Any previous Bowie album that was created on the heels of his continuing experimentation has proven to be a standout in his career (i.e. “Heroes,” “Low,” “Station to Station,” “Lodger”), and “Blackstar” is no exception.
Naturally, it is strange. Strange however, is an adjective that Bowie wears well. This album will disorient, confuse, and most likely steer away straightforward rock fans. That’s because it is far from being a rock album. That being said, it is far from being any one genre.
Instead, “Blackstar” plays as a sort of idiosyncratic hybrid of jazz, pop, rock and electronica elements. Longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti claimed that Bowie had been listening to more eclectic artists, including Kendrick Lamar, LCD Soundsystem and Death Grips during the recording of the album. By delving into a plethora of new genres, the artist has created an erratic shifting of style – sometimes within a single song – that sounds uniquely Bowie.
Perhaps the most glaring difference on “Blackstar” from the rest of the Bowie catalog is the hefty presence of jazz as a musical backdrop, which is in part due to Bowie’s renewed interest in the genre. Bowie contracted the progressive Donny McCaslin Quartet, consisting of pianist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, to aid in musical direction.
With the musical groundwork laid, Bowie embarked on one of his moodiest and most ambitious albums yet. The majority of the songs on “Blackstar” are shrouded in dark mystics. Songs of death, destruction, doom, war and seedy city life fuel the album. There are moments of brief resolution, but the twisted mood of the album better suits the persona of Bowie in his older years. On “Blackstar,” Bowie has come to embody and embrace his fabled aura, which was constructed from the unknown, the vulgar, the strange and the gothic.
The album begins with the ten-minute epic, “Blackstar.” The song swirls in and out of obscurity and fuses the glitch-factor of electronica with the liberating ideals of progressive jazz. Bowie uses his finely aged, spirited croon to become a sort of mystical raconteur/cult-leader prancing along the fringes of the avant-garde song structure.
“Lazarus” paints itself as one of the most musically inclined Bowie songs of late. The song’s no-frills opening beat acts as the groundwork for a textural masterpiece that soon sends the listener into an atmospheric trance. Reaching the climax, the song fortifies into a frenzy of repetitious musical passageways over a driving rhythm from a ride cymbal before retreating back to familiarity.
“Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” is peculiar in terms of musical structure and identity. The fierce rhythm of the song sounds like a piece of music that the raucous free-jazz outfit Last Exit could’ve conjured up. However, Bowie is far too enterprising to allow for a reckless vocal performance on the track. Instead, he slowly sings of a faulted relationship in a weathered voice for maximum contrast.
Literature aficionados are sure to clamor over “Girl Loves Me” where Bowie crossbreeds Anthony Burgess’ fictional slang, “nadsat,” with William S. Burrough’s cut-up writing technique. “Party up moodge, nanti vellecot round on Tuesday.” It seems only Bowie could write something this opaque while still making it seem acceptable.
“Dollar Days” most resembles a classic Bowie song in more ways than one. During the intro, the same harmonica part from 1977’s “A New Career in a New Town” is present, revealing Bowie is not apprehensive about looking back. Structurally, the song is a melancholy ballad that will help to warm up some traditional rock fans to the album.
In retrospect, it is truly refreshing to know that Bowie has not been persuaded in to trying to re-create the ’70s with a mediocre album and a “greatest-hits” sell-out tour. Bowie’s pursuance of new musical horizons has kept his creative juices flowing over the years and in turn has graced the music community with a truly innovative album: musically, lyrically, and sonically.
Unfortunately, it will most likely confuse a mass of listeners with whatever genre is stapled down upon it. It is simply too ahead of its time to bill it as a “classic rock comeback album from the man who brought you Ziggy Stardust.” “Blackstar” will take a seasoned listener to extract the reasons why it deserves to be highly revered, and these kinds of listeners come few and far between in our modern times.
Even though it may become hidden under the poorly written and produced songs of the iTunes charts, “Blackstar” is an elliptical masterpiece, and a watershed album in the later years of David Bowie’s career.
Matthew Aquiline is a senior at Lancaster High School.