Blackstar review by David Bowie

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  • Released: Jan 8, 2016
  • Sound: 8
  • Lyrics: 8
  • Overall Impression: 9
  • Reviewer's score: 8.3 Superb
  • Users' score: 9 (74 votes)
David Bowie: Blackstar
5

Sound — 8
David Bowie was a musician and artist whose creativity could never be turned off. Even when he tried to cap off his four-decade long, 23-album stint with a hiatus (and presumed retirement) after 2003's "Reality," each following year would have him contributing to someone else's project or live performance, and he'd officially lift this hiatus when he returned with 2013's adult-contemporary rocker, "The Next Day."

But despite 2013 being a year for return in Bowie's career, it ended up becoming a tragic one when he was diagnosed with liver cancer months after the release of his returning album. This was a fact that Bowie kept as close to the vest as possible - with only a few people being let in on the truth, both the public and many of Bowie's close friends didn't know he was battling cancer until he passed away from it a few days ago.

The timing of all this makes Bowie's passing even heavier. With the release of his newest album, "Blackstar," on his 69th birthday, and his death happening a couple days afterwards, it's almost as if Bowie had intended this serendipitous schedule. Recent interviews with Bowie's longtime producer Tony Visconti have somewhat debunked this idea, with Visconti telling that Bowie had intentions to make a follow-up album to "Blackstar" soon after, but what's uncanny is that Bowie made "Blackstar" knowing full and well that he was going to pass away soon.

Musically, "Blackstar" marks another phase for Bowie's sound - something that's always been ever-changing throughout his career, but given the circumstances here, Bowie sets his sights on covering more bases and getting more adventurous and elaborate. This is indicative in the opening eponymous song, which clocks in at almost ten minutes, and sandwiches a crooning soul number in between two sections built of grand string sections and ornate progressions, resembling that of latter-era Massive Attack. That Massive Attack influence is felt even stronger in "Girl Loves Me," from the ominous ebb and flow of strings, syncopated drumbeats, and rising synth sections near the end.

The heavy jazz flavor found in the album also carries some grandiosity, with saxophonist Donny McCaslin playing torch-carrying solos in "Lazarus" and "Dollar Days," as well as brandishing chaotic, tempo-defying freeform in "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore." But the more interesting display of adventure in the jazzy side of the album isn't its traditional strengths, but how Bowie deviates from said tradition. The smooth and sparse arrangement in "Lazarus" gets rattled by rough, dynamic hits of guitar (nearly the only time when distorted guitars are used in the album), and the constant rhythms of "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" (where simple spaced guitar hits are juxtaposed by peppy drumming activity) are painted over with fits of noise-play.

But the most sonically-potent moments on "Blackstar" are arguably the final two songs. The penultimate "Dollar Days" not only makes a nod to Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" days (being driven primarily by piano and his acoustic guitar), but is also the most morose song on the album. But right at its end, it parlays into the final song "I Can't Give Everything Away," where its dance-inducing synth drumbeat, bass groove and modular string melodies conjure a disco-esque vibe. At face value, it's a strange switch from stark sorrow to upbeat resolution, but it's not hard to fathom this shift representing Bowie's arc from initial grief in the face of terminality to enlightened acceptance - a fitting end to this album of finality.

Lyrics — 8
Though not every lyric in "Blackstar" is in reference to Bowie's terminal state (like the story of a surly, turbulent romantic interest in "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore," or the peculiar verbiage in "Girl Loves Me"), but of course, the many moments that do refer to his feelings towards his tangible, impending fate are the most poignant. While Bowie's quick allusions to dying and death aren't as sneaky or ominous as they would be if he were still alive (like "Look up here, I'm in heaven" in "Lazarus," and his repetition of "I'm trying to / I'm dying to" in "Dollar Days"), they still manage to be chilling in the wake of his death. The most moving of final sentiments, however, is in "I Can't Give Everything Away," which is about Bowie keeping his cancer a secret from nearly everyone, and generally acts as an apology to the many friends he never told ("Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That's the message that I sent / I can't give everything away"). In spite of this dominant theme, though, Bowie doesn't get overwrought with sorrow, nor does he attempt to bury the listener in grief over his own fate, which is a very commendable choice.

Overall Impression — 9
The form that "Blackstar" takes in the role that it plays can be examined in so many profound ways. As a follow-up to the returning-to-form likes of "The Next Day," it not only steps forward into a new sonic phase for Bowie, but also has to be the abrupt swan song for what was, indicated by the previous album's title, intended to be another fruitful era for Bowie's career. Yet as the last album to seal Bowie's catalog, it doesn't simply harp on the melancholy of finality, but weaves a number of sonic contrasts, resulting in a multi-dimensional expression that properly represents Bowie's spirit as an artist in the final moments of his life. Terminality spurs sorrow, but in the making of this final record, it also spurred energy, motivation, acceptance, peace, liberation, and even happiness in his last creative process. With all of the above manifesting on the album, Bowie was aware that "Blackstar" was likely going to be the album that everyone would be listening to in mourning, and in the same sense of him making this music to help him come to grips with his fate, he made sure to guide the listener through their grief in the journey the album takes, leading to a liberating enlightenment at the end of the record. Leave it to Bowie to be able to pull off something as beautiful as that.

37 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Earworm_Jerry
    Incredible album. Listening to it in light of David Bowie's death makes it feel like unraveling a mystery.
    Jyrgen
    I listened to it on Friday when it was released, and the lyrics and music felt way more mysterious back then because I had no idea what it was about. On Monday everything became clear and my whole view of the album changed.
    N7Crazy
    I hate to say this, due to the common notion of an artists death putting them on a pedestal, but I really think in light of his death, the album has gained a significant extra layer of poignancy. Don't get me wrong, I bought it the day it landed and thought it was fantastic, an absolute 9/10'er, but in light of his death, it's as though it has become a completely different record. It's gone from "merely" being a new essential staple in Bowie's discography, to a deliberate, carefully thought out, and masterfully executed swansong, the words of someone who knows that they, and all they represent to so many, is about to pass. I cannot justify it to myself to give this record anything less than 10. RIP Bowie - The stars still look different today, and probably always will.
    Honey Badger
    Bowie successfully turned death into an art with Blackstar, and he'll be greatly missed for years to come.
    LockedAndClush
    When I first listened to this record, I was left wondering where did the darkness come from. It wasn't a sad or depressed record, but it was certainly very dark, somewhat "dangerous". It impressed me to no end and I thought maybe it has something to do with the "Lazarus" play. In the end, the record became sad. Bowie's passing gave the "danger" a tangible form - the danger was death. Even if Bowie talked about recording more, I personally believe it was just a brave face he put in front of the very few people that knew of his condition. In the end, it wasn't death that took him - it was he who took death by the hand and showed it to us through his art. This complicated, expressive, unmistakably "Bowie" record is his best since "Scary Monsters" and a fitting goodbye. If anyone could have turned his death into part of his artistic legacy, it was him.
    T00DEEPBLUE
    It's cliche and annoying to idealise a famous person just because they're dead. But the timing of his death in light of the themes of this record make it utterly impossible not to. But aside from that elephant in the room, even if he didn't die, I would still say that this is a brilliant album in its own right.
    bunnyh0pz
    I think it's actually necessary to do that here, since his death itself is a huge part of this album
    Artifracture
    I really think this is not only the best Bowie album, but also one of the best albums ever made. The content is even more dark and powerful in the context of his passing. However, it's not true that Bowie knew it would be his last album; he had recorded a few demos for a followup.
    WhereArtEsteban
    whether he knew thisalbum was to be his last seems irrelevant to me personally, because the sentiment doesn't change- he knew he was dying and a lot of the music is intentionally reflecting that. Truth though, one of the greatest records ever made.
    Artifracture
    Yeah, I agree that it's irrelevant to the quality of the music or the symbolism of the lyrics, I was just pointing out that the claim made by the UG reviewer is false. I used to also think he knew because it just made too much sense.
    LemonyOrange
    I agree with the people who say that it's annoying that the album is only doing so well due to Bowie's death, but I firmly believe that was the point of the album. The majority of the songs signal the finality of Bowie's death, and he was aware that when he died his music would rocket up the charts (Lazarus: "Everybody knows me now"). The most important thing remains true though: This was Bowie's last work, and it deserves every second of airtime it gets. It's a truly amazing album and is incredibly well done. I will admire this man and his versatility until the day I die.
    travislausch
    I did hear it after hearing he died, so that might have affected my judgement a little, but I have to say, this album is magnificent. I'd never listened to a full-length Bowie album before (just his famous songs. Never really got that into Bowie, sadly), and I decided to give this one a whirl after I heard the title track and discovered how creepy and amazing it was. The whole album kind of reminded me of Steven Wilson's solo work, especially the more electronic moments. I feel like if Bowie hadn't passed and I had just discovered this, it probably still would have blown my mind. Great record. I'll be buying this when I get a chance.
    LockedAndClush
    If you enjoyed it, definitely have a look back at the 1977 album "Low". It has that similarly dense, hypnotizing vibe to it. Parts of it were even sampled in the final track on "Blackstar".
    travislausch
    Thanks! I like this review quote I saw when I looked up the album: "had the album been released twenty years later, this would have been called "post-rock." I was also a really big fan of "Heroes", but more because of Fripp than Bowie, so I might check out that album too! And I completely forgot that I had actually heard (and taped) the "Ziggy Stardust..." album on the radio back when our local rock station used to play full albums at 8PM on Sunday nights. That album had come up once, and I remember digging it enough to keep the cassette I recorded. That was also where I heard Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" for the first time. I wish they'd bring that back. Y'all kids need real music, or whatever they say nowadays.
    travislausch
    Oh, and I tried buying "Blackstar" today. No one had it because his death hyped it enough to ensure it was sold out at every music retailer in town. -_-
    LoseTheGenre
    Apparently there were 5 demos recorded for a follow-up to Blackstar. I hope they're never released... Lazarus and the accompanying video are the perfect way to go, if there is one. There has never been a more self-aware, beautiful mind than David's.
    juniorcampbell
    Barely 2 weeks into the new year, and we may very well already have the year's best album right here. Amazing stuff.
    Josh100_3
    I was enjoying this the day it came out and lazarus in particular blew me away but it was such a strange sounding record. He then passed away and suddenly it all made so much sense. A brilliant artist to the end and if anyone here hasn't checked out his album station to station then I urge you too as it has some mighty fine guitar work. RIP Bowie, my favourite musician.
    Daburcor
    I had been listening to this album pretty much non-stop since the day it came out. Not an hour before news of his death his, I was saying how much I had missed him in the time he was retired, and how happy I was that "The Next Day" wasn't just a one off, and that David Bowie was back for real. Then the news hit. After that, the already pretty weighty album took on an all new heft I never expected. I hate that David Bowie is gone forever this time, but he could not have gone out on a higher note.
    EntropicDiscord
    Song from the death bed, it's so eerie. David Bowie in death took art rock to a pinnacle that may be impossible for another artist to surpass.
    DantePhoenix
    For anybody jumping on the gravy train there's an album called "Heathen"... Do yourselves a favor. ;]
    Muser9909
    I wish to have money for pay this expecting piece of art, but i don't got it, i die for listen to, is the only album that desserves to pay after the hard work that bowie made it with his time in the last. I listened to song "Blackstar" and is one of the best jazzistic tunes i've ever listened in so many time. RIP Bowie, miss you.
    neenacook1
    [deleted]
    neenacook1 · Jan 14, 2016 11:12 AM
    damillion
    It's really gripping how the song goes together with the visuals and the lyrics. Without them it's not as good though...Bowie was more of an artist than a musician, in my opinon.
    Ultimate-Grohl
    This album KILLED David Bowie.
    stratomaiden
    It's understandable if you don't like the album but damn, I wouldn't be calling it trolling just pure fucking stupidity. I actually find some trolls quite funny but this shit is too far. Just stop trying and gtfo. *edited for typo
    anjali321
    [deleted]
    anjali321 · Feb 03, 2016 03:29 AM