12 Jan 2016

David Bowie / Blackstar (album review)

Blackstar is an album I first listened to on the day it came out, after trawling round London record shops desperately looking for somewhere selling a luscious looking vinyl copy - on the fourth time of asking, I found a copy in Sister Ray, Soho, took it home, and since then it's only left my turntable a handful of times. And most of those have been so I can put it back in the sleeve and appreciate the cut-out star of the ominous cover art.

With the deeply tragic and affecting death of my hero, David Bowie, a man for whom my tongue-in-cheek hyperboles are not fit to describe the brilliance of, occurring yesterday, Blackstar is an album that carries so much importance in the narrative of Britain's greatest cultural export. I don't know about you lot, but I had eerily prophetic worries about the Thin White Duke in the run-up to its release. But obviously I didn't expect us to lose Bowie 3 days after its release...

In wake of his passing, the final parting gift, the final work of art, and what we are left with by Bowie is Blackstar, an album of such poignancy and a genuine feeling of importance. The run up to this album gave it a sense of importance (and not the kind of pseudo-importance that say, Paul McCartney built up by releasing an album called New a few years back) anyway; it's the only album of his to not feature an image of him on the cover and it's the album with probably the most ambitious, experimental lead single. It's an album that feels like a fitting goodbye. However, I am most certainly not a mug and I won't give this album a good review merely because it happened to come out the same time he died, or however you wanna interpret the situation (I like to think he released it knowing exactly when he'd die), so on with the review of the actual music on the record.

Opening song Blackstar is a song I've already expressed my undying love for a hell of a lot, and with its furious ambition its easy to see why it's so well loved already; hypnotic Eastern instrumentation is juxtaposed with strong mystical imagery in the first part of the song, where David undoubtedly sounds frail; the imagery of the solitary candle is powerful and Bowie's sighing 'ahhhhhh, ahhhhh' croons make for quite the atmosphere. Then, the song - promising at first - takes a life of its own, as the instrumentation clears, reaching a melodic clearing, and David starts to belt out the lyrics as if it were 1975 all over again. Full of drones, swooning jazz instrumentation and dramatic retrospectively bleak lyrics, this is David Bowie seeing boundaries and eating boundaries.

The rest of the record has this fearless variation of instrumentation, and an array of juxtapositions that create a dark atmosphere on David Bowie's swansong. The discordance of the guitars on the gung-ho re-recording of 2014 single Sue amplifies the offbeat intensity of the song, made even more out there with otherworldly synths and scratchy brass parts that sound like they belong on Kid A, and the fact that 3 minutes of loose jazz noodling have been chopped from it makes it a more streamlined, punchy opener to side 2.

Lazarus is the song that has got the critics talking the most, and that's because there are so many glorious talking points. Thick, smoky saxophones atop an ominous bassline that coulda been a Joy Division classic, it's a subsuming song that before the Thin White Duke even opens his mouth, But then the lyrics - oh the lyrics - are just the most poignant gems on the record (I know I keep using that word, but there really are no other words for Blackstar). "Look up here/I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen", he croons on what is the highlight to his final record; the timing is so perfect, as if he isn't just living with his art like he did in the seventies as Ziggy Stardust, he's dying for his art too. Deep and affecting, Lazarus is probably the highlight for me, and the song that will be the closer for all his best ofs in the future, you'd like to hope.

Girl Loves Me is an angular stompy one that is sang entirely nadsat, which you'll know from the novel A Clockwork Orange, and it makes for a quite frankly real horrorshow offkey banger, sounding - as the best Bowie songs always do - like it is from another planet. Dollar Days is maybe the only track I'd describe as less than perfect, almost forgettable, but even so it has an air of defiance prevalent on the whole record - he sings about how he is quite literally 'dying to push their backs against the grain', which is almost like a perfect creative manifesto for the man, and a very good penultimate track to the album, even if it leaves more to be desired musically than the album's other six cuts.

I Can't Give Everything Away is the closer. The last song on the final David Bowie album. It's a fitting curtain call; a great goodbye - the final verse is 'I know something is very wrong/The pulse returns for prodigal sons/The blackout's hearts with flowered news/With skull designs upon my shoes', and the song gives an enormous, almost euphoric sense of closure, with the manic woozy guitar stabs and all.

On the whole of this album David Bowie utilises jazz instrumentation in a way he never has before, but unlike the likes of Tom Jones and Buble, it's not a front for conservative crooning. This is his most ambitious album since Low, his darkest since Station To Station (if not ever) and his best since Scary Monsters. I've seen a few posts on renowned sites like Consequence of sound and The Guardian quizically asking if Bowie wrote this knowing he was going to die; of course he did. This is a poignant, oracular masterwork; musically brilliant when you remove the context, absolute genius when you look at it as part of the amazing narrative that is David Bowie's incredible career as an artist.


(written by calum cashin)