“Blackstar” is David Bowie’s 28th and final studio album, originally released on 8th January 2016.
This was always going to be a difficult album to both place within my list and to discuss, as it conjures up so many mixed emotions. Initially, I was simply thrilled at yet another new Bowie release, getting to the record store just on opening time on Bowie’s 69th birthday to pick up an early copy. But within just a couple of days of its release, I was plunged into despair when I heard the shocking news of Bowie’s death.
So every time I give the album a spin, it’s a difficult listen. Still.
Which is a shame, tragedy even, as the album is simply filled with some brilliant, unique songs. But the songs have a different context now following the revelations of his illness and subsequently death that gives so many of these tracks an emotional pull that (for me anyways), makes for a somewhat uncomfortable experience. The album just makes me feel sad…
All that said, to say Bowie left us on an artistic high would be an understatement.
Following the commercial and general critical success of his surprise “come-back” album “The Next Day” in 2013, Bowie got his musical mojo back again. But he now looked to explore a more jazz oriented sound, rather than the more conventional rock ‘n’ roll vibe of his previous album.
Bowie has played around with jazz on a number of occasions previously, remembering that the saxophone was Bowie’s first musical instrument and the influences of Terry his half-brother. I’ve always considered the “Aladdin Sane” album, with the amazing piano performances of Mike Garson to be very jazz influenced. Same with much of “The Buddha of Suburbia“, with perhaps the closing “Bring Me The Disco King” from the “Reality” album being his most recent attempt at a jazz based track.
After releasing a couple of jazzy based tracks in “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” in 2014 (the latter in collaboration with Maria Schneider and her orchestra), Bowie was again ready to record a secretive new album. However, he decided to team up with a totally new collection of musicians, based on the jazz sounds of fellow New Yorker Donny McCaslin and his backing band (introduced to Bowie by Maria Schneider). However, the ever reliable and impressive Tony Visconti was retained again on production duties to record the unique listening experience that is Blackstar.
Starting in January 2015, the recording process was complicated with Bowie being diagnosed with extremely serious liver cancer. Although he was still hopeful of a positive outcome, Bowie knew that this could very well be his last ever album. The resultant stress, fear and sense of mortality just oozes out of the completed album.
The album opens with the stunning title track “Blackstar“, an almost 10 minute musical odyssey. Part jazz, part sci-fi art rock, part Gregorian chant and part just plain avant-garde bizarre, it’s an extraordinary track that truly sounds like nothing Bowie (or anyone else really) has ever recorded. It’s both eerie and beautiful in equal measure, with the opening sequence referencing an execution in the “villa of Ormen” featuring a haunting Bowie vocal. It then slowly glides into the middle section, in which the music is a tad more conventional (as is Bowie’s beautiful vocal) as he sings about his experiences of being a “Blackstar” and not a long list of other alternatives. The track then slowly returns us back to the villa of Ormen and its solitary candle, with McCaslin’s sax rounding off this masterpiece. The first single off the album, at 9 minutes 57 seconds, it just qualified as an iTunes single and remains the longest track to ever make it into the Billboard Hot 100 charts. A wonderful video was made, featuring different Bowie personas, including the “button-eyed” character to also feature in the “Lazarus” video and the jewelled skull of (possibly) Major Tom. A must-see if you’ve never seen it. Blackstar video.
“Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is a rework of the single that was released in 2014. With a driving beat underpinning a somewhat chaotic jazzy arrangement heavily featuring McCaslin’s sax, Bowie sings in his best creepy higher pitched register about his war-time adventures with a rather feisty women who unfortunately happens to be a whore. It really is as riotous as it sounds, although I slightly favour the original single version.
“Lazarus” is another thing entirely. It was written specifically for the musical “Lazarus”, in which a modern-day Thomas Jerome Newton, the doomed alien character Bowie played in the movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth” laments his current existence in New York. Although it dates just prior to his awful cancer diagnosis, the lyrics (“Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be healed“) and somber haunting melody can’t but remind you on every listen that Bowie is indeed no longer with us. And the video, with the death-bed “button-eyed” Bowie being pushed to the next realm, well, it’s just painful viewing. But if you can take away all these emotional layers, the song really is quite beautiful and superb. The second single from the album, you can watch the video here.
“Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” is the second track from the album that had been previously released as a single, although again re-recorded for the album. Featuring an even more chaotic jazzy arrangement, it really is a killer track. Bowie again sings “in character” as the possibly deranged killer of Sue or is he just fantasising and wishing he did the evil deed when he discovers her unfaithfulness. As with much of Bowie, who can really tell. Although jazz really isn’t my thing, the combination of jazz/rock/Bowie-weirdness just works so well here. The previous (slightly better) single version featuring the Maria Schneider Orchestra won her a Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals. You can watch the video of the single featuring some black/white images of Bowie displayed on buildings here.
“Girl Loves Me” is Bowie at his oddest best. Featuring lyrics that in part consist of both Polari and Nadsat gibberish (bringing back memories of his “Clockwork Orange” Ziggy phase), the standout line though is “Where the fuck did Monday go?“, a question I’m sure we’ve all asked at some point (although I ask the question more often of Sundays). The music is comparatively slower in tempo and sparser to what has preceded it, but with a stabbing beat, catchy chorus and a slight sense of unease throughout, it’s a lovely track that again sounds unlike anything Bowie has done before.
“Dollar Days” is simply beautiful and again with yearning lines such as “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to” and “I’m dying to…” there’s a strong sense here that Bowie doesn’t deep down think he’ll be with us much longer. But the music is gorgeous and McCaslin’s sax here is I think at it’s very best. Bowie’s vocals are also just superb here, both fragile and soaring in equal measure. Just a wonderful track.
The album ends ever so quickly with the 7th track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away“. It’s perhaps the weakest track here, although in an album with so many highlights, this is not necessarily such a damning verdict. It fits the overall feel of the album with a moody piece that reflects time is fast passing away “I know something is very wrong, The post returns for prodigal songs, The black-eyed sharks with flowered muse, With skull designs upon my shoes“. The music has a somewhat “gentle” and melancholy vibe as Bowie slowly fades out for the very last time.
Overall, the album really is a fantastic finale to a fantastic body of work. If it wasn’t for the fact it makes me feel so damn sad listening to it, it would likely be rated a little higher in my list.
“Blackstar” was certainly highly critically acclaimed, with many rave reviews even before Bowie’s passing. It even received a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album (his only album to win such an accolade) and remarkably was Bowie’s only No. 1 studio album in the US (it was Bowie’s 10th No. 1 in the UK).
Interestingly, “Blackstar” is one of the very few Bowie albums not to feature an image of Bowie on the cover (the original US version of “The Man Who Sold The World” and the original version of “The Buddha of Suburbia” being other rare examples).
A year later, on what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday, the “No Plan” EP was released, that featured all four original tracks from the “Lazarus” musical/play and which were all recorded during the “Blackstar” sessions. In addition to the already released “Lazarus” track, this little gem also included:
“No Plan” is a rather slow, sombre number, that reminds me a little of “Where Are We Now” from the previous “The Next Day” album. Of all the tracks from this period, this is my least favourite, with a somewhat forgettable musical arrangement that gently floats around.
“Killing a Little Time” is altogether different, with a much more “rock” feel, with guitars and drums more prominent than elsewhere. It’s a perfect fusion of the sounds he achieved on “The Next Day” and the more outlandish sounds from these sessions.
“When I Met You” is other great track, with a very catchy rhythm based on a great bass line that takes you back to earlier Bowie periods that few others tracks here do. Sung as a dramatic duet during the Lazarus musical, it works rather well as a Bowie solo piece as Bowie laments meeting the girl who changed everything for him. It’s another of those little known Bowie gems that are littered throughout his entire career.
All these versions are much better than the versions found on the “Lazarus” cast soundtrack album. Although the soundtrack is an excellent recording on the songs and associated arrangements from the musical, these are what they were all meant to really sound like and what fantastic songs they are.
Listening to the EP makes you want to go and see the Lazarus play/musical (it’s coming to Melbourne latter in 2019, so fingers crossed). It also makes you think what else Bowie could have achieved if fate had been different…
Seriously, after such an amazing career, what a wonderful album in which to say goodbye. That said, I still prefer his previous “comeback” album, in that while I find this remarkable album a somewhat sad listening experience, his previous album is both brilliant and uplifting.
But that’s a story for another day.
Best tracks: “Blackstar”, “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days”