[Editor’s Note: This review was written prior to David Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016 but did not arrive on the editor’s desk at Hellbound until after the singer’s passing. As a result, some of chronological references in the review may seem skewed but, out of respect for the subject and theauthor, we present it unedited.]
It has been said so often now that most fans (even the newest, least tested ones) can take this as a fact: David Bowie always rocks hardest and best when he’s making a grand artistic statement. The years have proven that as factual but, as Station To Station, Tin Machine, Earthling and, now, Blackstar illustrate, the singer goes that ever-so-important extra step and ascends to a whole other creative echelon when even his biggest supporters are left pretty sure that he couldn’t possibly have anything left anymore. That was certainly the sense that many fans got but only admitted begrudgingly when The Next Day came out in 2013 (even those fans who had a platform from which to speak were fairly one-sided in their analyses and summaries of the album), but the way being cleared in that manner has made ample room for Blackstar to (once again) reward the devout for their patience and redeem their sense of taste. Blackstar walks a pretty tight line as it goes too; with just seven songs, Bowie has left himself a very fine margin for any disposable moments. But that proves to work to the album’s benefit in the end, because it just means that Blackstar proves to play unsullied and unsoiled by a single weak second – it’s just spectacular.
Blackstar‘s new voice and angle is presented to listeners carefully and gently as the title track gingerly opens the proceedings. In a thematic manner similar to that of Station To Station, Bowie emerges in a manner which is both stunned and stunning; the solemn and sighing vocal tone presents the image of a character drained creatively, spiritually and emotionally, while a very syncopated and jazzy drum pattern sets a scaffold upon which guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Lindner fabricate a very urbane, airy and chilly backdrop. Right then and there, longtime fans will be ready for the adventure that Blackstar hints at promising; there is no real hook anywhere to be found in “Blackstar,” but the space that Bowie puts between himself and his listeners here will have them running to catch up and, when the tempo and arrangement of the song DO change (at around the five-minute mark), it feels like a triumph because it also happens to be when listeners are able to lock step with both the song and the singer. It feels incredibly revelatory which, coming from Bowie, is just astounding.
With their steps locked and a sense of success achieved after “Blackstar,” listeners will find the brisk, metropolitan pace of “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” (which arrives with a far jazzier mix appended to it than the version which supported the song on Bowie’s 2013 Record Store Day single) easy and satisfying to observe. True, Bowie could easily have changed up the going and thrown a sexier or more sultry vocal melody at “She Was A Whore,” but the choice to play hard-to-get and retain the wracked emotional center of Blackstar’s title track through this second song as well is at least an engaging one. That is not to say that this particular take of the song is the definitive one (that RSD single still wins those marbles), but it plays like great bait to keep listeners engaged. That bait proves to be a fine introduction to the darker tones which appear deeper in the album’s running too.
…And do those tones ever get dark and compelling. After “…She Was A Whore” lets out, “Lazarus” indulges Bowie’s penchant for sinister and loungy sonics (similar to those which appeared on Station To Station and Outside) but takes both the singer and listeners down through some seriously dark, personal alleyways (where Blackstar’s central character finds himself in New York and running out of money, in addition to the immortal image which is conjured by the words, “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”), which prove to be intoxicating, before a new take (and different from the one found on Bowie’s aforementioned RSD single) of “Sue” shoots a dose of Narcan into the song’s playing to perk it up. That sudden brightness is mesmerizing – particularly given that it comes right before “Girl Loves Me” starts getting REALLY weird (the drugs coursing through the song are apparent as the singer wonders repeatedly, “Where the fuck did Monday go?”) and nearly macabre – and the contrast offered between “Sue” and “Girl Loves Me” help to make those songs the centerpiece of this presentation, be it by accident or design. Here, all the different elements which make the other songs found throughout the running of Blackstar converge into a manic monstrosity that would be a mess in anyone else’s hands but, in Bowie’s, the mess is vibrant and garish and beautiful and compelling and absolutely must be heard to be believed; the singer’s climax is unbelievable.
After the “Sue”/”Girl Loves Me” climax, Blackstar begins to come back down again through the denouement of “Dollar Days” and the nearly coy “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” but the album never quite loses all its steam after it hits that dizzying high point; listeners’ brains simply will not be able to allow it all to leave and will still be buzzing after the album ends. In that particular way, any fan who hears Blackstar will excitedly proclaim that David Bowie has done it again; he’s been reborn or rejuvenated like Lazarus on his twenty-fifth album. It’s unbelievable, but it’s true – and it feels really fucking good to be able to say that.