David Bowie

ISO/Columbia, 2016

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


David Bowie’s second album in three years - and his final will and testament - is a willful shunning of commercial aspirations and a rejection of sorts of the album that preceded it.

This is not without precedent, of course. The Man Who Sold The World was at odds with Space Oddity, Station To Station was at odds with Young Americans, Let’s Dance contrasted with Scary Monsters and all of Bowie’s ‘90s albums were very different from each other. It’s a move not so chameleon-like as it appears; where some bands try to sound like current trends to ride the bandwagon, Bowie has always followed his own muse. This resulted in him creating movements, solidifying movements or, on rare occasions, trying his hand at what the crazy kids of today were doing (Earthling comes to mind here).

But it rarely resulted in music that wasn’t compelling, individual and artistic, and Blackstar is all of these things. It is a dark, difficult album, with few pop pretensions – at least on the first half – and an emphasis on mood, melody and jazz horns. That Bowie was suffering with cancer obviously informs the lyrics and some of the darkness here, though it was a secret he kept from most people, and in light of the shocking news of his passing on Jan. 11, 2016, it is difficult to not view this through that lens now.

Musically, the closest precedent in Bowie’s discography is Low, since this is just as angular, forward-thinking and difficult but still enjoyable. “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” appeared in a different form in 2014 and is revamped here with a driving, revved-up rhythm section underneath crazy horn wallops, running up and down the scales in a similar way as the piano break from “Aladdin Sane,” but far more fun (Bowie’s “woooo!” interjections are a delight during the solos). It’s a good way to break up the very serious, ponderous, art-pop-jazz of the 10-minute title song and “Lazarus.”

For those not familiar, “Lazarus” is the title song from the off-Broadway play starring Michael C. Hall (of my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Dexter and Six Feet Under,) loosely based on the Bowie movie The Man Who Fell To Earth and featuring a mix of old and new Bowie songs. It’s an unholy, nonsensical mess of a play, but it is interesting and striking and difficult to dismiss. Whatever its original intentions, it is clear that the straight-ahead rock of 2013’s The Next Day rejuvenated Bowie, to the point where he worked with Arcade Fire, got involved with Lazarus, recorded the new song “Sue (In A Season Of Crime)” for a 2014 compilation and recorded Blackstar, all within a three-year span.

“Lazarus” is beautiful, melancholy and edgy, growing with intensity in the vocals and the rising horns until an extended fadeout awash with slashing guitar chords as the other instruments fall away, one by one. It leads into a remake of “Sue,” here shortened to four minutes and given more focus, the emphasis on the Earthling-inspired jungle beats the only callback to the past. The entire song is off-kilter, not quite avant-garde (whatever that term means in 2016) but nowhere near accessible or radio-friendly or anything the casual fan would expect from Bowie. Which, I suspect, is exactly what he wanted.

“Girl Loves Me” is probably the only song that can be skipped, toning down the jazz for a slow, chunky hip-hop beat and some inane lyrics. To wit, most of the lyrics here are pretty dense, going more for evocation than actual meaning (although some have said “Blackstar” is about the rise of ISIS, which certainly fits with previous Bowie themes), but the cursing and Clockwork Orange slang ruin whatever unsettling musical mood Bowie was attempting. It’s a fascinating failure, at least, and it’s not like I ever wrote a better song, but still.

Better is “Dollar Days,” the most straight-ahead song here, a lush Bowie ballad with what appears to be sincerity in the lyrics and judicious use of strings, keyboards and sax throughout. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” throws back to the best-forgotten days of Black Tie White Noise in its corny synth sound and beat, but Bowie’s croon is reliably effective and the tune builds into something more effective than it initially appears. It is also the final role for the actor, the winking nod to the fans who saw something in at least one of Bowie's personas - if not in the shapeshifting, always-striving artist himself - that reflected part of themselves. Bowie never just told it like it was, never really shot straight, never did what was expected, and it is part of his appeal.

Leading off the album with “Blackstar” is a canny choice, as it forces the listener to take the disc on its own terms much like Station to Station did 40 years ago. The song never once rests or rises above its muted terror; the flute, the horns, the skittering off-time drums and Bowie’s wailing all swirl in and out, never settling on anything, stopping briefly for a pause and then shifting gears into a mid-tempo rock song before overlaying the lyrics from the first section onto the more standard rock beat.

The song, like the album, is unique in Bowie’s extended, legendary discography, eschewing the commercial for the artistic and the expected for the personal. Blackstar is dark and bleak in spots, full of despair and unsavory human behavior, but it is mesmerizing, absorbing and fully reflective of Bowie's state of mind during recording. Few careers end on an album this good, and there's really no better way to say goodbye.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2016 Benjamin Ray and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of ISO/Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.