Album Review: David Bowie – Blackstar by Nathan Brooks

My original intent was to review the new Childish Gambino album, but, as January 1st 2017 creeps ever closer, I feel it’s only appropriate to look at the final record from one of 2016’s biggest losses: David Bowie. I’m reviewing his final album, Blackstar.

The album opens with its title track. Easily Bowie’s furthest departure from the mainstream, Blackstar is a vividly surreal exploration of mortality. The drum ‘n’ bass rhythm evokes 1997’s Earthling, but the slower tempo contributes to the macabre atmosphere – created by the eerie saxophones and spacey keyboards – filling the first four minutes of the track.

Lyrics are fragmented and hard to decipher

Bowie moves through stuttering, writhing saxophones and drums into the track’s bluesier middle section. Here, the lyrics become less chant like. Bowie sings of angels and rituals over declarations that he’s a “blackstar”. The lyrics, like 1977’s Low, are fragmented and hard to decipher. However, the religious imagery and constant references to life after death reveal someone struggling with their imminent passing. Bowie finishes the track by reprising the opening refrain. This time the instrumentation’s wearier, gradually slowing to a halt as the song reaches its end.

The second track, ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, was intended as a single in 2014, but was re-recorded for Blackstar. The abrasive drum beat and Donny McCaslin’s screeching saxophone bear similarities to experimental hip hop group Death Grips. Bowie had been listening to them, along with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, which considerably influenced Blackstar’s experimental jazz sound. Lyrically, it’s a departure from the themes of the rest of Blackstar. The title references a controversial John Ford play from 1633. Bowie cleverly twists its contents, using it to explore prostitution and misogyny – mainly during WWI – whilst also examining his hypocrisy. Track four, Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), was its A-side. Originally a clean, jazz pop song, the album version adds a vicious edge with an industrial rock bass line. Like its B-side, Sue is disconnected from the general album theme, instead retelling the story of Ford’s play. The only allusion to Bowie’s battle with cancer are the lines “The clinic called / The x-ray’s fine”.

Bowie analyses his impact on the world on Lazarus

Between those tracks lies Lazarus. Coupled with its music video, it’s the darkest and most unsettling part of the album. Asking the listener to “look up here, I’m in heaven”, Bowie analyses his impact on the world from a posthumous perspective. Simultaneously, he encapsulates the process of leaving life and entering death. He reflects on his successes and regrets whilst longing to cast away the pressures of life to become free “just like that bluebird”.  Bowie delivers this through cracked vocals surrounded by a dense array of instruments. Beginning simply and gradually building up to incorporate mournful synths, a wailing, distorted guitar and a saxophone that appears to be clinging on for dear life, Lazarus is almost distressing to listen to. The fifth track, Girl Loves Me, has a similarly dark atmosphere. Bowie bitterly laments the passage of time, angrily questioning “where the f*** did Monday go?”. The use of Nadsat – the slang from A Clockwork Orange – and the sparse instrumentation also give it a bleak dystopian feeling.

The penultimate track, Dollar Days, is folkier. With strong vocal melodies and significant contributions from an acoustic guitar and piano, it evokes Bowie’s first classic album Hunky Dory, whilst still featuring prominent jazz elements. Lyrically, Dollar Days is the densest track on the album. The chorus begins by criticising the music industry, comparing it to an oppressive Oligarchy. Afterwards, it becomes a direct letter to his fans, ensuring they “don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you”. Meanwhile, he’s constantly alluding to his mortality, repeating the phrase “I’m dying to”, referencing both desire and literal death.

I Can’t Give Everything Away is effectively Bowie’s swan song

The final track, I Can’t Give Everything Away, is even more nostalgic, opening with a harmonica sample from the 1977 instrumental A New Career in a New Town. A bittersweet fusion of jazz and dance music, I Can’t Give Everything Away is effectively Bowie’s swan song. The initially tragic lyrics showcase Bowie’s sadness that he can no longer gift the world with his music. However, it also conveys Bowie’s acceptance of his fate; he acknowledges and celebrates his life, but also moves on from it. “Away” is the final word sung on the album, before the instruments disappear into silence.

The exceptional thing about Blackstar is that very few artists go out on such a high note. Even The Beatles, if you count Let it Be as their final album, signed off with mediocrity. Yet Blackstar is not only a good album; it sees David Bowie at a creative level parallel to that of his critically lauded Berlin Trilogy. Still pushing the boundaries of popular music so close to his death, Bowie’s raw and honest portrayal of the end of his life is a difficult and painful listen, but it’s undoubtedly some of his finest work. After producing over five decades worth of breathtakingly creative music, the mark this man made on the music industry will never be forgotten. David Bowie, you shall be forever missed.