Album Review – ‘Blackstar’ by David Bowie

By Mo Hafeez

“Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”

I’d already planned what I was going to say about this album before I heard the news of Bowie’s passing, and I promised myself that it wouldn’t colour my opinions of the record, but when there’s an opening line like that (from second single ‘Lazarus’, released two days before his death), it’s obvious that it was indeed planned.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 01.37.16 Long-time producer and occasional collaborator Tony Visconti reveals Bowie’s intent

 

Blackstar is the twenty-fifth (!) studio album released by David Bowie, and like many of his previous records, it’s filled with experimental and compelling instrumentals to go along with melancholy vocals and thought-provoking lyrics (especially now we have the unfortunate context of the album).

Also, like past releases again, it’s quite a change from what we’ve heard from Bowie previously – this is not a pop album, that’s for sure, but then again it’s not entirely unique. You hear shades of his former style, and you hear his influences too. There’s definite hints of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in there, the saxophone taking the key instrumental position, which may or may not take you back to Bowie’s Pin Ups,  though this time he’s not doing the playing as Donny McCaslin takes that role instead. The horns here though are not used for energy per se, but rather instead create quite creepy and unsettling phrases.

The opening title-track, with a video containing symbolisms on symbolisms of death, features the distinct voice but in an almost weary and whimpering-like fashion, the percussion menacingly backing up with snare rolls. And then, a genre-switch midway through the track to a more standard Western feeling, Bowie’s chants of “I’m a blackstar” intermittently breaking the initially uplifting chords, before the song moulds slowly back into its initial theme, closing with a droning and eclectic crescendo, a scampering flute at the centre.  The lyrical content is hard to decipher, though McCaslin has rather strangely suggested that the song was written about the rise of ISIS – it would seem to fit the theme well if Bowie did write it regarding himself, but nevertheless:

“Something happened on the day he died,
spirit rose a metre and stepped aside,
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried,
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”

‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ and ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ were re-recorded for this release, the former following on from ‘Blackstar’ very nicely, the saxophone playing a much more manic role throughout the song whilst a more standard kit-beat provides the backbone. The latter’s drumbeat reminded me of Earthling‘s ‘Little Wonder’, and the rest of the instrumentation catches up with this comparison towards the end when the distortion is laid on thick, the line “The clinic called, the X-ray’s fine” perhaps taking on more significant meaning in light of Bowie’s death.

The metaphysical nature of the lyrics don’t stop there, the track ‘Girl Loves Me’, in which the snare provides a militaristic backing to Bowie’s singing (containing words in a language taken from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange) – he yells “Where the fuck did Monday go?” repeatedly, but with no answer, and we are left with a sinister feeling that Bowie mourns the passing of time and indeed his own death (Bowie, of course, passing yesterday, on a Monday).

The album closes with ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, lyrically the most direct song on the album – it almost feels like his own obituary as he opens with “I know something is very wrong, the pulse returns the prodigal son”, as he samples his own song ‘A Career in a New Town”, a final hark back to his past, he tells us this is the last he has to offer, that he has given as much as he can,  and that he perhaps could not physically give anything more musically. Instrumentally though, it’s not a sad goodbye note, it’s warm, hopeful even.

I won’t be silly and say that the album brought me to tears during my most recent listen, but it definitely felt a little bit more sombre and a little bit more significant, that’s for sure – I paused for a moment of reflection when the organ faded away and just thought. I thought of Bowie’s legacy, and thought how this was a truly brilliant close to his life and career, aware of his past, but not overly nostalgic.

May you rest in peace David Bowie.

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