David Bowie – Blackstar

Album Review by Duncan Harman | 12 Jan 2016
Album title: Blackstar
Artist: David Bowie
Label: ISO/RCA
Release date: 8 Jan

None of us knew that Blackstar was to be the epitaph. Objectively speaking, Monday morning’s desperately sad news shouldn’t impact upon how this record is understood – and yet the knowledge that his 25th and final studio album consciously represents goodbye transforms initial appraisal – that Blackstar is an absorbing (if consciously arty and perhaps a shade self-indulgent) listen – into a work poignant beyond words.

Confession; this is a rewrite. The original review, submitted for publication the afternoon before news of his passing, missed the point somewhat, upholding that seam of interest whilst bemoaning the fact that Blackstar isn’t Scary Monsters (or whatever you’re favourite Bowie album may be).

We got it wrong. Of course Blackstar is a compelling proposition; fluted, meditative, a rejection of pop’s prissy little contours. The ten-minute title track flirts with monastic airs, the vocals distended, Donny McCaslin’s increasingly discordant sax breaks adding to sense of caustic otherworldliness.

Girl Loves Me celebrates Bowie’s trademark love of language, positioning English lyrics against phrases from Antony Burgess’ Nadsat (as well as the odd snatch of Polari) to create something indistinctly sinister – a trace of Diamond Dogs’ glorious dystopia, transplanted into a modern setting (it’s also one of two tracks with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy providing the beats).

Murphy’s appearance underlines how Blackstar’s subtle musicality – the percussion, the restrained strings – permits the album’s themes to percolate; don’t expect any Mick Ronson-esque axe grinding here; Ben Monder’s guitar parts are modest, buried low in Tony Visconti’s astute production. Bowie has always been an artist who reframes his own past – the liberal use here of his beloved saxophone a case in point – and whilst the lyrical trails are necessarily opaque, the arrangements don’t rely on vogue to foster the narrative (as perhaps was the case with much of his 1990s output).

Yet where we initially misread Blackstar was in understanding that this was an album lacking warmth, of being too clinical and too opaque, when the knowledge that the artist was terminally ill as Blackstar came together reveals an entirely different (and far braver) context. The lyrics to Lazarus alone represent (in retrospect) explicit farewell (“This way or no way you’ll know I’ll be free. Just like that bluebird – now, ain’t that just like me”).

In a similar fashion, closing track I Can’t Give Everything Away also finds Bowie corporeal (“Seeing more and feeling less. Saying no but meaning yes. This is all I ever meant”) – such words become humble tones of self-exposure not usually associated with hiding behind masks.

On one hand there’s no getting away from the fact that this isn’t always an easy listen; my original review noted its conceptual nature, and tracks that occasionally lack clear dénouement. Well, now we have that dénouement, and whilst we’ll never know how intentional the goodbye, Blackstar says it in a manner only Bowie could. Sleep well, Sir.