The untimely death of David Bowie has made reviewing this album a tough task. It’s hard to stay objective about it, or not see it through the lens of his demise. I’m sort of forced to think back to how I felt about it listening on the weekend before. So what follows is as best an assessment as I can make:
Like The Next Day before it, Bowie is in top form on this one. It’s a four star album. But Blackstar holds almost no musical similarity to its predecessor. While TND definitely had one foot in the nostalgia camp, and plenty of songs that musically wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Ziggy Stardust era, Blackstar tends to reference very little in Bowie’s past; at a pinch perhaps drawing on some of his nineties work, but only tangentially. Sonically, this is where a new Bowie album should be going – new territory – though in many ways, several of the songs sound much better in the context of the album than they do standing alone.
The two singles – the title track and Lazarus, are the outstanding anchors of the album, and if Bowie had recorded five other tracks of himself farting to pad it out, we’d still be calling this one of his greats. Blackstar – all ten glorious minutes of it – is a creepy, occultic, Byzantine catacomb of a song that showcases all that was loved about him. What dark and uncertain place is Bowie’s soul being dragged off to with his “passport and shoes”? We are forced to ponder a slightly tongue-in-cheek assessment of his career as “a flash in the pan”, finally facing up to “the great I AM”. And Lazarus – could there be a more fitting final single? – a slight and ordinary song when looked at as notes on a page is transformed in the hands of Bowie and Visconti into something truly transcendent. That lonely guitar figure at the start, the mournful saxaphone, the garage band axe-thrash, the heartbreaking lyrics – Lazarus is truly the “Antiheroes”. Instead of telling us that mere mortals can reach immortality “just for one day”, Bowie the immortal now reveals he is all too human, grasping at the last gasp of his fading life.
Quite naturally, the rest of the music struggles to compare to these two giants, and if you had to compare the album with The Next Day song for song, TND probably wins on consistency at least. But there are certainly no bad songs here. Tis a Pity She Was a Whore provides some heft that recalls the music of Black Tie White Noise, though it sounds like the B side it actually is. Its best feature is the simply magical lyric “Man, she punched me like a dude!” Sue, a single Bowie released last year that was probably his finest song in almost twenty years, is here shorn of its big band jazz arrangement in favour of rock guitar riffs that turns it into a drum and bass song, all but destroying everything that made it so engaging and special in the first place. Girl Loves Me, sung in the Polari dialect and musically recalling, of all things, 1994’s Buddha of Suburbia, is proof that Bowie’s more interesting moments are not always necessarily his most magic ones. And the album closes with the two most conventional songs on the album – pleasant enough ballads Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything Away, the latter of which is all but a rewrite of the title track to 1987’s stinker album Never Let Me Down! Proof perhaps of Bowie’s enduring sense of humour? Undoubtedly! But there’s nothing boring or skippable here – there’s a real cohesiveness and completeness to this album that makes it worthy of repeated listening.
Blackstar is undoubtedly Bowie’s most adventurous album since 1997’s Earthling, and with its two (for want of a better word) stellar singles, definitely his most rewarding listening experience since that time. It’s a fitting epitaph to the career of one of the twentieth century’s greatest musical artists.