It’s hard to write about a recently released album by a recently deceased artist, especially one so close to my heart. I find that Bowie’s death can alter and warp the mind around the otherworldly potential this album has, but I feel it’s important to look at this album as a listener on the 8th of January; the day of Bowie’s 69th birthday and the day in which this LP was released to the world. While also, looking at the album in hindsight, not even a week on from when it was released to evaluate what exactly it means or what it is meant to represent.
Musically, this album is an undoubtable tangent for Bowie. His incorporation of a jazz band on this LP compared to the rock band he had assembled for his previous record, The Next Day (2013), is what the casual listener of Bowie wouldn’t expect; but surely, isn’t that what Bowie is all about? This album opens up a new paradigm for Bowie to expose to us. On the first listen, I felt sceptical to whether he could pull off the ‘Avant-Garde Jazz’ dynamics I knew he was going to subject us to. Having listened to the single Blackstar a week after it was released in November 2015, I didn’t feel the same excitement I felt when first listening to the debut single of The Next Day just under 3 years previously.
In all truth, I didn’t expect a masterpiece out of this album, I had spent the last 4 years listening to Bowie’s entire discography, from glam rock extravaganzas in the form of Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, to the sudden jump to Plastic Soul with the albums Young Americans and Station To Station. Only last year did I first listen to the ambient works of Brian Eno dripfed in to the unforgettable Berlin Trilogy and also Bowie’s unexpected venture into Drum and Bass on Earthling. Having listened to The Next Day profusely, I thought that Bowie’s creative capabilities would have, naturally, started to dwindle. But as shown with this album, I was thoroughly mistaken.
The tracks are an interesting listen to say the least, the title track and leading single is the first the audience is given in this seemingly experimental journey Bowie wants to let us experience. The track, being near on 10 minutes is quite the listen, and on first approach is very hard to get your head around. It’s a dark track, feeling almost demonic and satanic. The jazz aspect works well under this guise, an energetic and juxtaposing drum track is laid next to Bowie’s waning voice making the music very trance like. The track feels as if it’s split into two parts, meeting a crescendo in the moddle before welcoming a quieter and more on beat drum track with the jazz ensemble playing a more melodic and later jazzy collection. There is something about this track in hindsight which makes it feel less peculiar, when first listening I could only think about how this song has something which I can’t put my finger on. Now, knowing what this song suggests and the anguish Bowie was feeling during the recording of this LP, I can feel the pain coming across through his voice, compared to the next day, his voice isn’t as distinctive or punctual, it’s fading because that’s what he was doing. Fading.
Blackstar is followed by the track ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, a song which had been released in 2014 as the B-side to the single Sue (or in a season of crime). This track especially jazz orientated starts with Bowie’s quivering breath before the solid drum beat and subsequent jazz piano/brad ensemble slowing kick into life. The song’s title has links to the 1630 poem, ‘Tis a Pity She’s A Whore by John Ford. One wondered whether the lyrics were from this poem but doubts the line ‘oh she punches like a dude’ was something Ford would have written in the 17th century. I find this track to be very progressive, a much lighter song compared to Blackstar but there are still dark undertones and the music still has a back street feel to it. The song is followed by Lazarus, a song which was released as a single and subsequent music video, prior to Bowie’s death. Although the video is haunting, the song is different in that department to say the least. It has a very prominent bass line with eerie violin parts played over. Following on from the first line of the song, ‘look up here, I’m in heaven’, a three chord distorted guitar part is played variably after each line in the verse there forth. I can’t say I paid too much attention to the lyrics when I first listened to it prior to his death, but listening back, it gives an idea that he knew what he was doing and that he was doing it his way. One must take solace in that idea. Lazarus is followed on by 4 tracks: Sue (or in a season of a crime), a song which was originally recorded in 2014 and released as a promotional single for the compilation Nothing Has Changed. The song was rerecorded for the Blackstar record and has had 3 minutes shaven off of the timing it originally was. A more dramatic song which is more guitar led although the jazz undertones are still existent. Girl Loves Me is the track to follow and from the first listen of the LP, I’ve felt it’s been a stand out track. The one thing I can say about this track is that the jazz influence is very well incorporated with Bowie’s lyrics extensively repeated over it. The prominent line being ‘Where the fuck did Monday go?’ And on the day of Bowie’s death being announced (Monday 11th January) I found it slightly haunting when recounting and re-listening this lyric, having he died on the Sunday. This demonstrates how his passing has changed this album for me, and for many other fans and listeners.
The album ends with the two songs, Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything Away. Dollar Days starts very melancholic, the writing on of paper followed by an over pining piano part added to by a slow and cheerless saxophone solo. Once Bowie’s voice hits your eardrums you’re welcomed to a full band playing behind his genius. The instrumentation for me is similar to that of Pulp’s 1998 album, This Is Hardcore. Once again, the lyrics are thoroughly poignant. Singing of running to the English evergreen, inciting the memory of the cover to his 1997 album, Earthling. Not to only mention the line ‘I’m dying too’, which somewhat makes his sudden passing more comprehendible days before it happened. The album ends with I Can’t Give Everything Away, a much more electronic song but with the jazz aspect still sitting in place. A sad song, to which Bowie’s voice feels old, still managing to hit the notes but one can only notice how the weakness is there and that’s what makes it so unique, so special, he’s continuing, he can’t give everything but he is trying. This song is the best way to end the album which, in gradual hindsight, is hard to describe.
On the 8th of January, when I first sat down to give my time to this album, I thought of it just as another record to add to the depending discography of David Bowie, the music was good, but then again, it was guaranteed, a Bowie seal of approval almost. However now listening back, knowing it’s his final work, his final masterpiece, one must question, how could we never have expected this?
In terms of music, this album is very David Bowie, not because it’s jazzy but because it’s different, it’s unexpected, it’s the final genre which needed to have the Bowie treatment. Not only does it sound jazzy but it also sound modern, it sounds real, it sounds soulful. One could say that maybe, that’s what it is, Bowie’s soul, wrapped up in a final LP and presented as his parting gift to us. It would have been easy for him to have given up, and leave us with The Next Day, but he knew there was more, and my goodness, wasn’t there just. A man, who’s mortal life has ended has given us the final album, the final chapter to be continually played through out his immortal life, because with this album, Bowie never dies, Bowie lives.
by Sam Johns