Artist: David Bowie
Release Date: January 8th, 2016
Ever since I was a small child, riding in the back of my mom’s Subaru, David Bowie’s music has been part of my life. As far as I was concerned, “Space Oddity” was a song as old as time itself. Through much of my youth, I only knew Bowie as a piece of rock and roll history, his music coming on time and time again on classic rock radio. He was as much a part of music as Elvis Presley or the Beatles, and it wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I personally discovered the true gravity of Bowie’s influence.
Sometime in 2000, during my embarrassing goth phase and its accompanying obsession with Nine Inch Nails, I stumbled upon a music video for “I’m Afraid of Americans,” a Bowie song that featured NIN frontman Trent Reznor. The juxtaposition of seeing this legend, this icon, this relic from my parents’ age, working side by side with a band that was entirely mine, had a profound effect on me. It eliminated my budding teenage sense of elitism and music snobbery; it prompted me to expand my musical tastes beyond the borders of genre and era. And it was magical.
In September of 2003, two weeks before the release of Bowie’s Reality, another intergenerational collaboration was released on the soundtrack to the vampire/ werewolf action flick Underworld. Remixed by Nine Inch Nails jack-of-all-trades Danny Lohner and featuring guest vocals by actress/singer Milla Jovovich and Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, Bowie’s “Bring Me The Disco King” brought me to tears. The sweeping strings, the airy, distant electronic drums, and above all, Bowie’s voice, sounding grizzled and ancient… it was too much to take. As the old man crooned the line, “Life wasn’t worth the balance, or the crumpled paper it was written on,” I was convinced this would be his swan song: his farewell to music. And for a decade, I believed I was right.
When The Next Day was released in 2013, I was thrilled that Bowie was putting out new music, but I just couldn’t get into it. It felt like a collection of singles, paying homage to the early part of the musician’s career. Most tracks felt like familiar rock singles and ballads. On their own, the songs were good, but the album certainly didn’t fit together with the coherence of Earthling or Ziggy Stardust. It wasn’t what I wanted out of the final David Bowie album.
Blackstar, however, is exactly what I wanted. Kicking off with the titular track clocking in at nearly ten minutes, Blackstar immediately presents itself with an ethereal atmosphere that is maintained with grace and precision throughout the record. The culmination of Bowie’s reputation as a chameleon, “Blackstar” presents a soundscape blended from muted electronic beats, meandering, noodling guitars and jazzy horns complemented by sweeping synths. Multiple layers of vocal tracks complement this otherworldly soundscape as Bowie delivers meandering, reflective lyrics. The end result is something more easily comparable to a David Lynch film than a musical genre.
Track two, “’Tis a Pity She Was A Whore,” is arguably the weakest on the album lyrically, but it comes with a chaotic burst in the soundscape as the horns take things up a notch. The shift in tension is something necessary to the flow of the record, and any lyrical missteps are soon forgotten: “Lazarus” is a powerful, heartrending track. Between the subtle horns, thudding bass-line and cynical vocals, this song presents a perfectly executed noir atmosphere from start to finish. By the final lyric, “Oh, I’ll be free just like that bluebird. Oh I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me,” the listener has been presented with the sonic image of a tattered, broken man, and it is beautiful.
The next two tracks maintain the album’s direction without standing out much, but “Lazarus” is a tough act to follow. “Sue” kicks the energy back up with a frantic electronic beat and “Girl Loves Me” presents an experiment in this sound as the vocals take the forefront, presenting themselves more as an instrument than a story to follow.
“Dollar Days” opens with meditative piano and horns, bursting into what is perhaps the most upbeat track on the record. Acoustic guitar appears as well, and Bowie’s lyrics simultaneously touch on themes of bitterness and letting go. The song flows perfectly into the final track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” by which point the soundscape has evolved into something decidedly more positive and resigned than the organized chaos from which it came. The end of the record feels like returning to somewhere you may have forgotten. Like going home. “This is all I ever meant,” Bowie sings. “That’s the message that I sent.”
LIKEYOUSAID Critic Score: 9.5/10
Article by Jesse Magnan.