Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Album Review: David Bowie - Blackstar (2016)

On the day that David Bowie released Blackstar, the album was reviewed on prolific music site Pitchfork. The review opened with the following:

David Bowie has died many deaths yet he is still with us. He is popular music’s ultimate Lazarus: Just as that Biblical figure was beckoned by Jesus to emerge from his tomb after four days of nothingness, Bowie has put many of his selves to rest over the last half-century, only to rise again with a different guise. This is astounding to watch, but it's more treacherous to live through; following Lazarus’ return, priests plotted to kill him, fearing the power of his story. And imagine actually being such a miracle man – resurrection is a hard act to follow.”

Which, given what was about to unfold, is more than a little bit spooky. Two days later, David Bowie was dead.

It all seemed so surreal. Nobody was prepared for the devastating news of his passing. And although there had been rumours and hints about the poor state of his health around the time of the release of The Next Day back in 2013, he'd largely kept the severity of his cancer a closely guarded secret.

Blackstar was the cross-generational superstar's 25th studio album, released to coincide with his 69th birthday. The day it was released, the same day as the Pitchfork review was published, a good friend – quite possibly the biggest Bowie fan I know – had shared with me some of her thoughts on the album. I invited her to put those words into some semblance of order so I could use them for a (guest post) album review.

But then, in the immediate wake of Bowie's death it just didn't seem appropriate, or make any sense, to be offering a critique of his final work. An album co-producer Tony Visconti later called a “parting gift to fans” ... I decided to wait until the dust settled and I had my own copy of the album.

By that stage, Blackstar was at the top of the New Zealand album charts, and Bowie had another ten albums inside the Top 40. What I thought of the great man's swan song hardly mattered in the slightest; the album's commercial relevance was already assured, and a whole bunch of earlier work suddenly had fresh chart momentum. As is so often the way of things when the Grim Reaper comes calling.

Blackstar opens with the sprawling title track, which – at something close to ten minutes in duration – feels like several recurring ideas and themes (death, certainly) rolled into one. At the very least it's something of a musical throwback to the experimental, arty, prog-rock excesses of the early Seventies glam period which informed so much of Bowie's best work.

The fragility of his voice is immediately apparent on the opener – as it was throughout The Next Day – and it's something that stands out across the remaining thirty or so minutes of Blackstar. Rather than disguise this, or even attempt to, Bowie uses it as a tool to portray varying degrees of emotion, and an unapologetic sense of vulnerability. It seems the alien may have been human after all.

A couple of these tunes have had previous outings. ‘Sue (or in a season of crime)’ was released as a single in 2014, and appeared on that year's three-disc compilation set Nothing Has Changed, while the less ambiguous ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ saw the light of day as that single's B-side. I note that the saxophone part (on ‘Whore’) enjoyed a makeover for the album version. Sax being one of the more prominent instrumental features on Blackstar.

And certainly, regardless of any additional poignancy it now offers, current single and album centrepiece ‘Lazarus’ is an undoubted highlight here. It appeals as the most straightforward “pop song” on an album which veers strongly away from all traditional forms of that description.

Whatever else David Bowie was, he was an artist who favoured innovation and experimentation above all else, and there’s plenty of that on Blackstar.

And yes, of course, there’s all that slightly unnerving stuff about death. Who else but David Bowie could get away with such an outrageous parting shot?

And so he’s gone. But not really. His music lives on, his discography is something quite phenomenal, and Blackstar is a worthy, if very late addition to that wonderful legacy.


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