I’ve lived in a world devoid of David Bowie for 14 days now. We all have. I’d like to say it’s a little less interesting and a little less colourful, but it’s not. It’s a lot less interesting.
Blackstar felt genuinely significant upon release, a heady message was being told but in typical Bowie style, it was difficult to decipher fully with any level of confidence. I flippantly suggested a few weeks ago that it sounded very much like the closing chapter and death of Major Tom. I was half right.
Context changes everything, and as cliché as it maybe, hindsight is definitely 20/20.
Anyone reading this article will be acutely aware of what happened next. The events that followed crystallised Blackstar to become Bowie’s clearest message, his most fully realised artwork. A clean and clear ending with all questions answered when few had time to be asked. I’ve never experienced anything like it, I dare say there will never be another album that serves as a closing chapter to so many characters, and to so many people.
The album is short (succinct or efficient maybe a better word) by Bowie standards, coming in around the forty-two minute mark. Nothing is drawn out, nothing feels out-of-place. Even on the title track which spans a full ten minutes (Bowie’s second longest track, second to Station To Station), there is no fat. There was no time for it.
Blackstar is, to my knowledge, the only Bowie album not to show him on the cover art. Excluding The Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack and its monstrously horrid BBC produced artwork, of course. Maybe this was a sign. His face obscured on his second last outing (The Next Day), only to be entirely absent from his last. He was disappearing before our eyes, and we didn’t even know it.
It appears that with Blackstar, Bowie was finally able to complete that concept album he’s been trying to create since the early seventies. Station To Station attempted it, Ziggy Stardust attempted it, as did 1. Outside. All abandoned the idea, or at least deviated from it significantly enough that none could be called concept albums. With Blackstar David created what he’d been trying to achieve all this time. Unfortunately for him (and for us), it contained the story of his final days. He was kind enough to give away the ending of Major Tom’s story in “Blackstar” and let Davie Jones say goodbye in “Lazarus”. It’s one of the most self-aware artworks of recent times, and the death of Bowie has transformed it into one of the greatest pieces of performance art of the 21st Century.
The opener, “Blackstar” is a ten minute long, sprawling, tense affair. It’s an agitated, restless piece with cinematic strings and a frantic double-time beat pinning down a short two note electronic bass line. A long drawn, slow attack sax presents itself to be the real star of the piece, before everything devolves into a strange, twisted ballad. The whole track is very Bowie, but in a very contemporary way. Blackstar represents the death of a deity, the end of Major Tom. The story of a stranger from another world, and the end of the beginning.
“‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is what follows, and is a distorted, rough sounding, demo-esque, two-stepping rock piece. With a title ripped from a John Ford play that’s I’ve never seen nor read, and telling the story of a World War 1 Soldier’s visit to a brothel, “‘Tis A Pity” is a Blackstar’s allegory of time passing, cleverly disguised in a grungy pop-rock piece. “Hold your mad hands, I cried” referencing a clock face as the heavy tick of the beat marches on, “that was patrol, this is the war” being used to contrast to the perception of time, then and now.
The third track, and the most poignant to circumstance is “Lazarus”. Completely dissimilar to anything else in Bowie’s back catalogue, it’s extremely modern in execution. If the opening track was a reflection of the death of a character, “Lazarus” is the album’s acceptance of circumstances. “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free“. Although the massively distorted guitar chords fight and struggle, crying out, all other instrumentation is more passive – nothing else resists. Bowie’s vocal is frail and brittle – gasping a little for breath on the beginning of every line, and is used beautifully. The lyrics, now, seem very purposeful and deliberate. “Look up here, man, I’m in danger“. The saxophone cries out after the delivery of every line of each verse, giving the whole tracks such a beautifully bleak feeling. The video is absolutely incredible, and does more to fully explore the music than I ever could.
“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)”, I’m told, is the literal retelling of the John Ford play from which track two takes it’s title. Again, I’ve got no idea about the play, having never heard of it until the release of Blackstar. What I can tell you is that “Sue” is the darkest track on the album. A fast, aggressive drum ‘n’ bass beat smashes along intricately and distorted guitars swing back and forth. It tells a story where deceit and collusion are rife and lacks any atonement. It’s possible that Bowie sees the play as a reflection of his life.
“Girl Loves Me” begins with crazy vocal syncopation, not a single word of which I understand. I try to write these things in a vacuum, rather than subconsciously regurgitate what I’ve read/heard elsewhere. I have no idea, most of it’s not in English. I don’t know what it is.
“Dollar Days” is a bittersweet piano ballad on which Bowie proclaims himself “dying to… fool them all again and again”, breaking and playing with the phrasing.
Aesthetically it’s the most recognisable ‘Bowie’ track on the entire album. Certainly, “Dollar Days” is most self-referential tracks on Blackstar, acknowledging the twisted music industry, Bowie’s fans, and his impending death all in adjacent bars. Bowie contemplates his regrets and successes, juxtaposing with lines about what may or may not become of him. “Cash girls suffer me, I’ve got no enemies“.
Within “Dollar Days” appears Bowie’s last truly great line; “I’m dying to…push their backs against the grain” which in typical Bowie style is a meshing of two – “back against the wall” [desperation] and “against the grain” [contrary to common practice].
I Can’t Give Everything Away thick, dense, lamenting ballad, clearly intended to be his swan song. “The pulse returns the prodigal son, the blackout hearts, the flowered news, with skull designs upon my shoes“. Soft synthesiser pads wash and fleeting snatches of harmonica reverberate over a small electronic beat, giving the track a lot of space – a lot of emptiness. The track finally ebbing into the distance, echoing away.
It’s difficult not to see Blackstar as more than a sum of its parts. Everything is linked and precisely penned, everything feels intentional. Everything feels significant, especially now.
God damn can Tony Visconti keep a secret. That fucking guy… This whole time he had us fooled, played like a fiddle. And what’s more, I’m glad he did. The few days after the release of Blackstar and before the death of Bowie where extremely interesting. Having this weird album in our hands, trying to dig into its secrets and layers. Trying to understand exactly what was going on – and then to have all those questions answered in one static moment, to have our whole perception of the album changed before our eyes. If you listened to Blackstar in those few days, consider yourself a very lucky person, you’ve seen both sides of the coin.
I’m a hipster, fuck, I don’t like music other people have heard of (what’s the point?), never mind the music of self-proclaimed ‘pop stars’. Bowie was an exception. Blackstar is the best album in decades and quite possibly our lifetimes. I find it difficult to imagine what it would take to produce something that would equal the quality and authenticity of this.
A lot of reviewers and fans are saying that they find the album difficult to listen to now – I’m finding it increasingly difficult to listen to anything else.
If you’re interested in further perspective David Bowie “Blackstar” or just more Bowie articles in general, please see the brilliant blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame | David Bowie, song by song, which is infinitely better than my own.