Album review: “Blackstar” by David Bowie

There are few albums that are as visceral and purposefully melancholy as “Blackstar.” The mastermind of glam rock has delivered with a record that has far surpassed his most recent works by leaps and bounds.

Musically, this album kicks it into high gear throughout every song, utilizing well-respected jazz musicians to beef up the album’s feel.

The lyrical themes on this album, although somewhat morbid, paint a realistic view of Bowie’s final days: questioning, unsure, but ultimately resigned to his fate. “Blackstar” has many small victories within each song and leaves the listener wanting for something that will never and can never happen again.

The album opens with the title track, lightly engaging the audience with airy vocals and subdued guitar and drum patterns. It quickly picks up into a trot, gaining a few synthesizers and keys. Bowie’s vocals drift over the track without intermingling with the groove itself, harmonizing in a disjointed but haunting manner.

 The groove breaks down in the middle of the track making the progressive and experimental rock elements plain to see. The lyric, “I’m a blackstar, way up, oh honey, I’ve got game/I see right so white, so open-heart it’s pain/ I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes” show the singer’s conflict with fame; not feeling sufficient with his lot in life.  The song concludes with a fading jam session that echoes the unsteadiness of the lyrics.

On a slightly more lighthearted note, the next track is titled “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore.” Lyrically this song is vulgar, crass and exactly what this album needed. The groove is upbeat and lilting with saxophones wailing at the top of their registers.

  Possibly the most poignant and soul crushing song on this album is “Lazarus.” This is song so clearly a man telling a story about his near future to himself, almost as a way to reassure himself.

Lyrics like, “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” and “Look up here, man, I’m in danger/ I’ve got nothing left to lose” show the brutal truth of what was so soon going to come to pass. The music on this track is a jazzy dirge, both open to interpretation and mournful.

The next three tracks see changes more focused on the musical grooves than the lyrics. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” has a frantic, manic energy of a song that is trying to tell too much in too little a time. “Girl Loves Me” is makeup on nonsensical phrases and a driving beat, with vocals that pierce through the overly toned down instrumentation.

“Dollar Days” sounds like it was a stray track from an early Bowie album, utilizing the 12-string guitar and splashy cymbal work from the drummer.

“I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the final track on the album, is not the bang at the end of the album that you would want, but the final wave at the end of a very long parade. The title is repeated multiple times, sung over a restless string section, a longing, distant harmonica and a very Eric Johnson-toned guitar solo.

“Black Star” is a tumultuous record with many different themes and tones that are reminiscent of the timing and attitude of the author. At a little under 42 minutes long, it is a short album to peruse. Even though the transitions between tracks are not entirely smooth, the musicianship on this album is the clear star.

The drums and bass set up a solid framework for the more elusive and mysterious instruments used, and offer an excellent counterpoint for the frailty of David Bowie’s vocals.

The ailing singer worked with his new vocal attributes, playing up how rough his voice sounds in songs like “Girl Loves Me” and “‘Tis A Pity.” The choice to accentuate the flaws may have been purposeful, knowing that he would never tour for the album Bowie made it as authentic a representation of his current sound as possible.

Not only is this album a true joy to listen to, it is a fitting end to a stellar artist. David Bowie has influenced so many different types of musicians and everyday people with his new 25-album body of work, the countless collaborations, and his unwillingness to alter himself for the world. Hopefully, this album will be the ultimate tribute to a man who fell to Earth but did not let it change him.

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