Genre: Art Rock/Jazz
Producer: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Released: 8 January, 2016
David Bowie has made a long and impressive career by continuously drawing new influences and constantly renewing his image, from the Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust, becoming one of the most influential musicians of our time in the process. Over his career he has released 26 studio albums, of which the latest, Blackstar, was released only two days before his death. Being fully aware that he was dying, Bowie intended the album to be a sort of a parting gift to the fans. So reviewing the record feels a bit weird, to be honest; kind of like correcting the grammar of the last words of a dying man.
Fittingly, whereas Bowie’s previous album, the comeback record The Next Day, was more of a celebration of his career until that point, liberally borrowing and recycling elements from his previous work, his swan song Blackstar is stepping bravely into the unknown: the album’s eerie sound is unlike anything else in his career, dancing somewhere in the crossroads of bebop, avant-garde jazz, art rock and electronic. The brass-heavy tunes are accompanied by dissonant, otherworldly keyboards and ferocious, ecstatic drumwork; with the lyrics littered with more or less cryptic and symbolic references to his impending death, Blackstar is the darkest and most experimental record of Bowie’s whole career. The whole album has an air of weightlessness to it, as if the listener was floating in the vast emptiness of space.
Despite the seemingly brooding nature of the record, Blackstar is full of variation in terms of both music and emotion. The title track features heavy choruses and a vaguely Middle-Eastern main melody, accompanied by computerized bleeps and static buzzes; slower “Lazarus” borrows its riff-vocals alternation from blues; the jarring “Sue (Or in A Season of Crime)” sounds like an unholy mixture of Pendulum and Nine Inch Nails. Only the slower “Dollar Days” sounds like an intentional waltz down memory lane, with the first half of the song featuring instrumentation reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier material, especially “Space Oddity” and ”Starman”. It would be almost out of place if the second half of the song didn’t slowly shift back towards the impressive space weirdness of the rest of the album. For obvious reasons, Bowie’s voice is not as strong and vibrant as it once were, and he is using that knowledge to the best possible effect, straining his voice to its limit, making him sound more frail and weak than ever. Given the album’s subject matter it works perfectly, and adds an unnerving edge even to the more chipper of the tracks.
Despite the claims of being ‘a parting gift to the fans’ Blackstar sounds very much like David Bowie’s record for himself. It is the work of a person with a clear creative vision and no intention to pandering to the radio stations, record label executives, nor fans, successfully reinventing himself for one last time.
Rest in Peace, Major Tom.