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David Bowie - Blackstar CD (album) cover


David Bowie


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4.48 | 462 ratings

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5 stars I never thought that David Bowie's death would affect me as much as it did. The timeline of the release of this album (January 8, 2016) relative to his death (January 10, 2016) would have impacted me under any circumstances, but I had an additional circumstance at the time that added significant leverage to my emotional state; my second son was due on January 10 and would be born in the early morning of January 12. I went to bed early on January 10 and slept deeply, not knowing how the following day would go, and as I came to early in the morning of the 11th my (very pregnant and uncomfortable) wife let me know that David Bowie had died. Over the course of the day, as I made attempts to work from home as best as I could, I took part in the communal mourning that swept through social media, and I felt some fascination at all of the different reasons that people had for feeling sad about his passing. For every music nerd like me who felt the need to mourn the loss of somebody who had made such a tremendous impact on the history of rock and pop music, there were people who had grown up loving him specifically because of the Ziggy era, or people who had fallen in love with him for "Space Oddity," or people who loved him because of the 80s MTV era, or people who loved him because they had known him first as Jareth the Goblin King. The day drew on and on, and by the end of it I was emotionally drained, which was a problem given that I knew that my son's birth was imminent, and I would have to be mentally and emotionally ready for my wife and son.

In the midst of all of this emotional upheaval, the one thing that I refused to do on the 11th was give my first listen to what was then David Bowie's brand new album (I had also refused to listen to any of the pre-album releases of various songs or watch the music videos slowly coming out); I just couldn't spare that much of my emotional reserves for what I suspected could be a grueling experience. Early the next morning, my son was born, and by early afternoon I had come home to take care of my older son and to get a little rest. That evening, after getting my older son fed and put to bed, I decided that now was the time to indulge myself and that, as my final music listen on my stereo for a little while, I would put on Blackstar for my initial listen. In retrospect, this was somewhat of a mistake; I was far too drained and tired to put on an album that was clearly tapping into a combination of creative and emotional intensity that had not been typical of Bowie in the past, and the album made little lasting impression on me from that first listen. The only thing that I retained between that listen and the next one (which was not for some time) was that the repeated angry guitar lick in the coda of "Lazarus" seemed like the emotional equivalent of getting hit in the face by a 2x4 over and over again; beyond that I couldn't sort through the album at all.

Eventually, once enough time had passed from my son's birth and my initial listen so that I could have some chance to approach this album apart from the tangled mess of emotions that accompanied the time around its release, I took the opportunity to dive back into this album, and by listen three overall I was totally sold on it. Due to the circumstances of how Bowie (and a small number of others, though not including his backing band) knew he was dying during the sessions and would likely be dead sometime around when the album came out (though I really doubt he had planned for the gap between the two to be so small), the easy comparison for this album in terms of narrative would be Closer (by Joy Division), but I don't think that's quite right. The issue I've always had with the narrative of Closer as the band's big symbolic swan-song is that Ian Curtis, as important as he might have been as the band's front-man, was only one of the people helping to write music for Joy Division, and none of the others had any inkling that this would be their last Joy Division album. A better comparison might be Brainwashed, the album that George Harrison worked on near the end of his life as he died of lung cancer. Then again, though, that comparison suffers somewhat as well, given that the album had been left unfinished when he died, and one can reasonably debate how much the final product resembled what Harrison had envisioned (thanks to Jeff Lynne doing Jeff Lynne things for better or for worse). Among albums released by major performers in the world of rock music, this album is unique (there might be some minor performer that disproves this but I genuinely can't think of one); it's the only case I can think of where a major rock star had the chance to exercise complete creative control over his own requiem.

Given the knowledge that he would likely never again get to make music, it's interesting to observe Bowie's preferences regarding the approach taken on this album. Whereas The Next Day showed Bowie embracing hard rock to a greater degree than at any other point in his career, this album shows an almost complete rejection of rock and pop music in favor of a bizarre blend of art rock, jazz, electronic music, hip hop, and who knows what else (including elements of Gregorian chant music). In addition to showcasing the genre-smooshing version of Bowie (my favorite version of Bowie) throughout, though, this album also demonstrates a level of emotional intensity that he had sometimes flashed but had never sustained at this level for such long stretches (I guess if dying wasn't going to make him open up a bit then nothing would). The skill shown by Bowie on this album in integrating his experimental side with this new-found emotional openness is somewhat terrifying, and the only album in his career that I can think of to come close to this one in regards to this integration is "Heroes" (that doesn't mean it's my first or second favorite Bowie album, but it does help explain why it's so high in my rankings).

The first half, consisting of three tracks, is definitely one of the very best halves of any Bowie album. The middle track, "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" (whose name is inspired by a 17th century John Ford play called "'Tis a Pity She's a Whore") is an energetic blast of "Aladdin Sane" (in the sparse "song" parts) turned happy, filtered through mid-70s Roxy Music and updated to 40 years later, featuring a rousingly discordant sax part (there's a lot in the way of great sax work on this album) over a great drum beat and jazzy piano, and the overall effect is fantastic. It's also an absolutely necessary respite from the sheer emotional terror that surrounds it. The inevitable comparison for the opening title track, in terms of scope (it's 10 minutes!!!), is "Station to Station," but where that one was full of guitar- heavy futuristic sci-fi honky-tonk cool, this one is full of mournful sax and chant-like melodies and tense, jittery drumming. A brief stretch of a softer, lovelier tune emerges for a little while, but this gets replaced with a tense strut (which contains one of the best Bowie lyrics ever, "You're a flash in the pan / I'm the great I Am") that carries things before the chant aspects return in full force. Everything about the song is deeply unsettling and funereal, and by the time the song dissolves into a synth drone at the very end, it's clear that something is terribly wrong in Bowie's life.

The keystone to the album, of course, is the side-closing "Lazarus," which starts with Bowie intoning "Look up here, I'm in heaven" over a bassline and an unsettling drum part that together immediately conjure up a sense of desolation and fear. This is Bowie's artistic commentary on his own death, alternately built around descending sax and guitar lines (with a creepy ascending synth here and there), eventually building into passionate yearning for a time when he can be free of his pain and fear. The build in intensity through the song is terrifying, climaxing with an orgasmic release of emotional sax wailing that suddenly disappears and gives into the sheer agony of those two growling guitar notes over and over and over again over that bass and those drums. The last two minutes of the song inevitably make me think of the amazing passages in War in Peace where Tolstoy describes the slow process of Prince Andre's death, in particular the portion where he's not quite dead but no longer in the land of the living either, and that's close to the highest compliment I can give a song. I can't think of any way to keep this song out of a list of Bowie's ten best songs.

The second half doesn't quite live up to the first half, but neither does it try to; there's still plenty of emotional intensity, but it's presented in a manner that allows for a lot more light than the darkness that started and ended it. "Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)" is a throwback to Outside, but with saxophone to bounce off of the industrial aspects of the sound (in the drums and guitars used for texture), and the lyrics, telling the story of a guy who had a relationship with a woman that ended when she left because he was kind of a jerk, provide a fascinating amount of detail while still remaining little more than a sketch. I should note that this song (as well as "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore") had originally been written and recorded prior to this album, though "Sue" was re-recorded in the sessions for this album; it's somewhat for this reason that these two songs feel different from much of the rest of the album, but then again they provide some emotional diversity, so I won't complain too much. "Girl Loves Me," then, is probably my least favorite track on the album, but hell, something had to be my least favorite track, and it's still quite interesting; it's a fascinating bit of artsy post-punkish swagger, with Bowie making use of British slang that would be gibberish to somebody unfamiliar with it (like I was at first). The fact that Bowie died on a Sunday, when the track repeatedly contains the phrase "Where the fuck did Monday go," adds it an additional level of poignancy as well.

While the especially emotionally intense tracks of the first side focused on the more despairing aspects of human existence (and the end thereof), the especially emotionally intense tracks that finish the second side are far more uplifting. "Dollar Days" completely eluded me the first couple of listens, but part of what made the album click so well for me was just how much I came to love this one. The lyrics are a little opaque, but the vibe and the position on the album make it fairly clear to me that this track is about Bowie trying to emotionally reconcile himself to all of the things he'll have to say goodbye to as he passes on. The lines "If I never see the English evergreens I'm running to/It's nothing to me/It's nothing to see" and "Don't believe for just one second I'm forgetting you/I'm trying to/I'm dying to" seem oh so much like the lines of somebody trying to convince themselves of their truth (but not really meaning it), and the pleasant tranquility of the music (before building into an incredibly uplifting instrumental finish) speaks to me of somebody who has chosen, in considering these things he'll miss, to focus on gratitude rather than resentment. In this track, I hear an incredible level of complex emotional transparency and vulnerability, and for a moment it feels like I can see right into the very center of Bowie's soul ...

... and then, it's as if Bowie knows that he's opened up just a bit too much, and with a smile and a wink the final track, "I Can't Give Everything Away," comes to take us home. The heart of the song is the following verse: "Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That's the message that I sent / I can't give everything / I can't give everything away." Yes, he's on the verge of death, and he's opened up himself a good deal at the very end, but dagnabbit, he's still David Bowie, and that means he has an obligation to hold something back of himself, and to misdirect, and to obfuscate, because that's just what he does. It's such a happy and snappy song, and such a seemingly incongruous way to end an album that serves as his own requiem, but even in the superficial happiness, there are still layers to be unfolded. Case in point: the repeated sample of the harmonica from "A New Career in a New Town" seems at first like just a fun self-referential nod that fits in well with the uplifting vibe, but if you think about it, the phrase "A New Career in a New Town" is a perfect metaphor to describe settling into an existence beyond the bounds of this life, whatever it might be. Between that sample, and the way the guitar parts eventually seem ready to break into "Teenage Wildlife" at any given moment, I have to see this song as a metaphor for the whole process of Bowie bothering to make an album with this much care as he was dying, and it's impossible for me not to hear the final chords as the dying moment when he was bathed in white light.

For all of the emotional power I feel from this album, both in relation to external circumstances (both generally felt and personal to me), I'm still not inclined to mark this as Bowie's best nor as an absolutely top-level album in my collection. Bowie's career was already set just fine before he made this album, and the overall impact of albums like Ziggy, Station to Station and "Heroes" on my overall listening experience is greater than that of Blackstar, not least because they stand largely on their own merits without reliance on something as emotionally manipulative as Bowie's own death. Plus, in another context, I could potentially see myself getting kinda annoyed with "Girl Loves Me" (if it had been on The Next Day, for instance, I probably would have just ignored it or somewhat disliked it), so that hurts a little. Regardless, while there are parts of me that recognize that it's a little cheap for an album to be tied so closely with somebody's death, this is largely offset by my amazement that Bowie could actually leverage his own death for creative inspiration. This is a late-period triumph from somebody for whom I'd given up the idea of late-period triumphs (the closest he had come was Heathen but this one is significantly better than Heathen), and a must own for all Bowie fans. Hell, on a gut level, I'd probably rate it #3, behind "Heroes" and Station to Station but just ahead of Ziggy, and if that's blasphemous then so be it.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |


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