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.