I am filled with a lot of mixed emotions writing this review. First of all, a sense of grief and mourning for the world’s loss of one of the most prolific, creative and boundary-pushing entertainers of our time. The stars will never align again in such a way that brought us David Bowie. Second, a sense of guilt. While I’ve tried to pay attention to Bowie over the years, I only own 4 of his albums, one of which is his jam-packed Best of Bowie. The others being copies of Hunky Dory and Heroes that I’ve acquired in the past few years, and now, Blackstar. I can already hear the cries from the truly devoted fans that I’m in no position to really understand this album. What is it about an artist’s death that makes us finally focus on and appreciate their entire body of work? Not just that, but consume every last word of it in a way we never would when they were alive? Truth be told, all of the focus in the past week on Bowie’s music has lit a fire under me to finally really dive in. I’ve heard pieces of albums from throughout his career. I’ve more recently listened to Scary Monsters and loved it. But why isn’t there a section of my wall of music devoted to his massive career?
Thirdly, I’m feeling completely fascinated. I had seen the video for “Blackstar” about 2 or 3 weeks before the album came out. It was bizarre and in the moment defied categorization. I had seen the videos from The Next Day, which were quite creative and interesting, and this far surpassed those in cinematic quality. I was at least interested enough to go on this ride this time around. And then everyday life made me forget about it again until I saw on Spotify that the Blackstar album had been released. That Sunday, I followed a link to the “Lazarus” video and watched it. I was again mesmerized. Someone who had made music for so long was not taking the easy road, making an adult contemporary country crossover “buy it for your grandma” album. This was real art. At this point I’m not sure what everything in the video or the song means yet, but it has layers, and it really warrants my attention. So that settles it. When I go to the store this week I will pick up Blackstar. This has to be at least an interesting album worthy of a real listen.
And then Monday happened. As the reports fled in, I sat at my desk at work welling up as I read just about everyone I could think of one by one expressing their disbelief, their sadness, their gutted loss. Every one of my heroes has somehow been moved by this man and his many faces and his brilliant artistic spirit. Sure most of us had never met David Bowie, never mind meeting Mr. David Jones, the man behind the personas. But his music and everything he stood for was a beacon of light for so many to reach for the stars and not accept being normal. When someone’s art gives you comfort and inspiration, you feel as though that artist is a real part of your life and your being. And then I start thinking about the fact his new album came out two days beforehand. That scene in the video. That *was* a hospital bed. Wait a second! So… he knew all along and this was his goodbye? Leave it to a man who inspired so many artists to leave his own death as a work of art and a final gift to those he meant so much to. I listened to Blackstar on Spotify as I tried to work, but also transfixed by what I was hearing. Every time I was checking Facebook, more and more messages flooding about what David Bowie meant to them. On lunch, I went to Target a few blocks away. Sold out! Just a big empty space on their new releases display. After work I raced to Best Buy who luckily had 2 copies left on the shelf. As I’m standing in line to buy it I’m feeling all of the things I mentioned above. Am I just a morbid vulture for being fascinated by the last work of a dying man? But he wanted us to hear it! He wanted his life to be celebrated and for his finality to mean something. I felt weird for being so excited to hear it, but knowing it would be something special.
I brought it home, put on headphones and read the lyrics along as I listened. I was teary eyed through much of it. I was in wonderment about the experimentation in the music that was a bed for his words. This was no pop album. This doesn’t even sound like any other Bowie that I’d heard until now, save for traces of the Berlin period and a bit of what The Next Day started. It was not trying to be anything to anyone, except for an adventure. Would I have heard the album the same way without knowing its purpose? Probably not. Do I feel that invalidates how it moved me as I listened for the first time? Absolutely not. This was one genius final chess move. So after a couple listens, and with a heavy, but inspired heart, I will attempt to break down my thoughts on the songs so far.
This epic nearly 10 minute track is really a two-parter. The jungle speed drums and the disjointed horn stabs in the first part remind me a bit of more experimental Radiohead. The vocals are downright spooky, set against a cinematic bed of otherworldly synths. The song and the video really go hand in hand when trying to decipher its meaning. The lyrics conjure up the image of some sort of a black mass. In the video, people huddle around a skull of a dead astronaut and convulse in a frenzy. Perhaps he was imagining a hysteria of sorts from his own death. “In the centre of it all… your eyes”. People who may not have really understood what the frenzy was about taking notice and being inspired? In the second half the music lifts and instead of a dark “voice of Bowie”, we have Bowie as human narrator. “Something happened on the day he died… Somebody else took his place and bravely cried ‘I’m a Blackstar!'”. Just looking up “black star” or “dark star” can give you a long list of possibilities of how to interpret this. Everything from a gravitational object to a cartoon from 1981 all fit the idea to some degree. The symbolism in the lyrics and video will be mulled over for years to come. But essentially this is an idealization of the Starman passing the torch on to those who have understood. This isn’t really future tense, as so many artists have in the past few decades expanded on just parts of what Bowie started. But this is the open letter where he realizes this, and in his journey to the other side is inviting us to still dream. So much to digest for just one song, even if it is a long one.
“‘TIS A PITY SHE WAS A WHORE”
This is one of two songs on the album that originated earlier on. “Sue”, mentioned later, appeared in a different form on his fairly recent retrospective Nothing Has Changed. “‘Tis a Pity..” was its non-album single b-side. At first when I looked up some info about the song, I read that the title and ideas come from a John Ford play titled ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. But that’s too easy. I think the “whore” here is time itself. “Hold your mad hands, I cried”, being the hands of a clock. The music had a steady and fast paced beat with with a chaotic freeform undercurrent that also seems to give away the true intent of the lyrics.
So I’m getting quite an education while digging deeper into the lyrics. I had first though Lazarus was a reference to a biblical story that depicted rich vs. poor. However, it appears the Lazarus referenced here is more likely Saint Lazarus of Bethany and a story of resurrection. This reference is open to so many interpretations. As I first watched the video, in which Bowie is shown in an old-timey bed, probably his actual death bed in depiction, it didn’t even cross my mind that this was his goodbye. Rewatching afterwards, the song and the video combined are a work of genius. He is shown furiously scribbling words in a frenzy in a costume said to be from his appearance in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, and at the end, he climbs into a wardrobe and closes the door. This is not death. This is Bowie going home, wherever that may be. Musically the slow pacing recalls the dirge of gothy era Cure, with some very mournful horns. Just hearing the words “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” gives quite a chill. The lyrics depict the realization of crossing over between worlds. The end of this world and the beginning of the next. The fear, the unknown, even the humor. “Ain’t that just like me?”.
“SUE (or In a Season Of Crime)”
This one appeared in longer and different form on the compilation Nothing Has Changed. While this version is shorter, it has a bit more grit to the mix. This is essentially a retelling of the story in the play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which Bowie was obviously fascinated by, as he referred to it in two separate songs. The nervous percussion in this track (and the next track as well) come from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. It was nice to see that their collaboration on Arcade Fire’s “Relektor” branched a bit further. I’m not familiar with the play, but it’s obvious to me that these words describing the story also probably parallel bits of Bowie’s life.
“GIRL LOVES ME”
This track is rather perplexing in its own way. The language is derived mainly from Nadsat, the language of Anthony Burgess’s classic novel (and later Stanley Kubrick movie) A Clockwork Orange, and something called Polari or Palare, which was underground gay slang used in London in the 60s. After some deciphering, the lyrics seem to be recalling younger days of mischief and dizzying sex drugs and rock & roll that culminate in a somewhat paranoid sounding refrain of “Where the fuck did Monday go?”. Then amidst that, seeing from his vantage point now and what he has created. This is one that really sticks in my head. Maybe it’s partly because Monday was the first day we were without his presence on this earth. Sure, that’s coincidence, but it’s a creepy one. The sounds in this song particularly hearken back to some of the experimental late 70s sounds. It’s important to mention that mastermind producer Tony Visconti did the production on this album, caressing every detail in beautiful form.
Here we have one of the most introspective and direct songs on the album. Based in piano, strings and a very melancholy rainy day sound, Bowie ruminates over the meaninglessness of money and what success and the music industry seem like in the context of life and death. The repetition of the lines “I’m trying to/I’m dying to” start resonating as “I’m dying, too” in the context. As with all of this album, these words were chosen very carefully. It’s obvious that Bowie still wants to create his best and inspire despite the necessary hassles that come with the music industry, all in spite of his illness that none but a guarded few knew about.
“I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY”
And this is David’s final song. And a phrase like the title is the kind of tease I would expect. The song literally foreshadows his own death, “The blackout hearts, the flowered news”. Yet for such sad words, the music is quite uplifting and reflecting as it builds and lifts away, without being grandiose on a gawdy level in a way one might expect of a finale. The pain in his voice as he sings what knows will be his swan song… I was in tears by the end of the song the first time I heard it. Not just at the realization of loss and sadness, but at the beauty of him sharing his soul with us in such a naked time rather than retreating and leaving in a quiet way.
The best way I can summarize Blackstar is that is is a true work of art, coming from a very pure and very raw place. This isn’t empty pop music designed to dance around to. It is reflective in the way it would be to read someone’s memoirs. Musically, underneath all of the beautiful and soul-searching lyrics, this album is like nothing I have heard recently. The man really had it in him to break ground one last time in a very big way. It is a crime to me that this is his first #1 album in the USA, and he didn’t get to live to see that. But I don’t think he needed to. He knew that the many students of Ziggy, The Thin White Duke, and his many other chapters would be listening. Perhaps from another place in space, time and existence, he’s smiling. Smiling big in appreciation that even now, people like me that hadn’t taken the real time to dig into these works can truly listen and be inspired to dream big. Thank you, Mr. Bowie, for daring us to be bold.
The Original 2014 Version of “SUE (or In a Season Of Crime)”:
You can pick up your own copy of Blackstar here:
So many true words Rob in a superb review of David’s final album.
I too haven’t enough of his music in my collection yet have always had an interest and fascination in his diverse work. I will be buying/listening to more of his discography, and although I look forward to it, it also feels almost wrong that I didn’t in his lifetime.
I have always found it strange, that in the visual arts field, many an artist, were not famous or rich or even seen, much less bought, until after they are passed on. Yet, in the music industry, it is almost a kin to a criminal act to do so, by a very minor group of people, who claim to be “true fans”, that cast shade on anyone that does not behave as they have, during an artists life and body of work. Why are they the ones that are heard so often. Thanks Rob, for being someone the rest of us can look up too, when it comes to discovering, experiencing and appreciating artists, no matter when it happens. These people need to remember that Black Star was not produced and released as an album that made the statement, “this is a slap in the face to all those that never heard all my work, screw you” It was a goodbye and thank you kind of thing. Big difference.
Completely AWESOME review, btw. Enjoyed reading it, very much. Thank you
Holy shinzit, this is so cool thank you.