David Bowie - Blackstar

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2016-01-08

Long-time foil Tony Visconti knows the fine art of 'less is more'. Which explains why Heathen and The Next Day are Bowie’s finest since Scary Monsters

Blackstar tops them both. 

If The Next Day was a welcome and unexpected hello, Blackstar is Bowie’s most audacious about-face since 1977’s Low. It's his most unique and refreshing work in decades. A true break with the past but still, unmistakably Bowie. One thing is for certain, he's turned to face the strange once again. However, as arcane and out on a limb this album is, Blackstar still manages to remain oddly accessible.

The opener is awash in sparse, atmospheric Arabic pastiche. Bowie chanting, like some occult high priest: “In the Villa of Omen stands a solitary candle". As with Ziggy, he’s once again poking fun at the messianic. Halfway through it’s near-10-minutes, the song quietly breaks down, then suddenly soars dramatically into a gorgeously soulful ballad, Bowie singing: “Something happened on the day that he died”, then later insisting, “I’m not a pop star/ I’m not a film star/ I’m a blackstar”. By rights, this disjointed suite of a song shouldn’t work, but it miraculously does. Magnificently so.

Two previously released songs grace the album, both skillfully reworked. Last year, Bowie released a rather brutal single called, 'Tis Pity She Was a Whore'. This version has much more finesse yet still manages to sound utterly whacked. Donnie McCaslin’s manic sax brings side two of Heroes to mind. It's Blackstar’s most ferocious cut. Menacing and unhinged.

Last year's career spanning retrospective Nothing Has Changed featured a chilling slice of big band noir in 'Sue (or in a Season of Crime)'. However, this version is much more stripped-down. Managing to be both sinister and touching, Bowie's vocals, at times, verging on the operatic. 

'Lazarus' brings Joy Division to mind with its brooding bass, Bowie mournfully crooning: “Look at me/ I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I got drama/ can’t be stolen/ Everybody knows me now.” Then a sinister guitar flashes in the distance and MacCaslin’s yearing saxophone throws down the gauntlet. 

'Girl Loves Me' might just be the most playful and impenetrable song on the album. Despite the Clockwork Orange Nasdat lyrics, the tortured refrain, “Where the fuck did Monday go," needs no translation. Inspired weirdness. Bowie at his most obtuse and catchy. 

The final two tracks are haunting ballads. 'Dollar Days' kicks in beautifully, in stark contrast with the rest of the album. Bowie yearning, “If I never see English evergreens again I'm running to/ it's nothing to me.”

All too close on 'Dollar Day’s heels is the album’s closer, 'I Can’t Give Everything Away', an even more enigmatic ballad. “Saying no, but meaning yes/ this is all I ever meant/ that’s the message that I sent,” Bowie confesses. A strangely uplifting end to a beguiling album. Revealing all and nothing.

Of course, Bowie's dabbled in jazz stylings dating back to Aladdin Sane, mostly notably at the hands of pianist Mike Garson. While Blackstar boasts a crack jazz combo, it’s the furthest thing from a jazz album. It completely defies categorization. Both the band and Bowie tread into unknown territory, playing off each other’s strengths. The end result sounds sounds fresh and innovative. 

One of the great myths about David Bowie is that he’s a chameleon. But a chameleon changes in order to mimic its surroundings. At his height, Bowie always had others mimicking him. What he did in the 70s was create a persona and under that guise make wonderfully imaginative art-rock, be it Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke or the ex-pat in exile of his Berlin period. Even the platinum pompadour of the slickly commercial Let’s Dance was a character.

It's only when Bowie put away his characters that his work fell into sharp decline. For a couple decades he just blandly played at being 'David Bowie'. Ironically, after a 10-year hiatus, he’s managed to make 'David Bowie' his persona. The reclusive, enigmatic, sphynx-like avant-rock star. It worked for The Next Day and it works for this album as well. 

Back in 2003, Bowie admitted: “All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience.” There’s none of that here.

If The Next Day proved he hadn’t lost it, Blackstar shows that at 69, he’s on a tear. Sparse and powerful, Blackstar is Bowie’s most hypnotic album in decades. A masterpiece. Once again, he’s Major Tom, beaming out signals from the nebula. 

Postscript: Obvioulsly this review was written before the bomb dropped of David Bowie's passing. Sad, sad news. One of the greatest rock s on the planet. Like everyone else, longtime fan that I am, I was floored.

Suddenly these songs take on a whole new, powerful meaning. 'Blackstar', poking fun at his image. 'Tis Pity She Was a Whore', ripping on fame and fortune. 'Lazarus' is undeniably about dying. 'Dollar Days' about letting go. 'I Can't Give Everything Away', the final word.

He may be gone, but what a legacy he left behind for future generations to discover. I don't get sad or mournful or maudlin listening to Blackstar. I get inspired.This record is full of life, not death. Thank you, David.

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