Blackstar Album Review
Released January 8, 2016
Genre: Avant Garde Jazz, Experimental Rock, Art Rock
Blackstar is the latest (and unfortunately last) album by David Bowie, one of the most interesting, stylistic, and ambitious recording artists of the 20th century. While not all of his projects may have held a high musical standard, at his best he was very creative and innovative – helping establish the groundwork for genres like glam and gothic rock. It would be hard to find at least one musician or band who didn’t owe at least a small debt to the influence Bowie had on their sound. Reportedly intended to be his “swan song”, this album was released two days before Bowie’s death, which casts a bit of an eerie shadow on it. Quite a few of the songs on Blackstar contain lyrics that sound like they came from the perspective of a man who knew he didn’t have much longer to live. But can this album stand on it’s own without the context of Bowie’s passing? I, for one, certainly believe so.
The first thing I really noticed when I was first listening to this album was this: Bowie really seemed to be aware of his limitations as a singer resulting from his age. Like many vocalists that were popular back in the 70s or late 60s, his voice is not as flexible nor as powerful as it used to be, which is definitely a huge hurdle to work around when recording an album. He never quite sounds as lively as he did on songs like “Space Oddity” or “Heroes”, for example. Yet, unlike most of the vocalists from his generation, he uses what he can from his aged voice to very great effect, as well as allowing it to do deliveries that may not have sounded quite right in his younger years.
The opening title track presents a bit of an unsettling vibe in the first few, which is only helped by his strange, deep, harmonious chant of lines like “In the Villa of Ormen”. And the songs “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days” has Bowie performing with a withered voice that fits in perfectly with their slower song tempos as well as the lyrical reflections on things like death. This is not to say that he doesn’t provide some fun performances, though; Bowie still proves that his voice can match his wild personality throughout the album. “Girl Loves Me”, my favorite song on the album, provides some fun vocal performances as he yelps through the entertainingly absurd lyrics from the verses of the song, such as “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Overall, this album showcases that he really has a great understanding on how to use the voice as an instrument, meshing it gracefully with the lyrics and music of the song he’s working on. While he may not have possessed as powerful a voice as some of his contemporaries like Freddy Mercury or Geddy Lee, he did have the skill of recognizing the various ways his voice could suit a song, arguably more important to contributing to a good song than having a loud or flexible voice.
As mentioned before, this album takes a jazz-inspired direction. When I first heard that this was the sound the album was going to take, I was assuming that it was going to be somewhat like Steely Dan: instrumentally catchy and jammy, but not quite as explorative as the sounds it was based on, and something that wouldn’t sound out of place in a cafe or on radio stations like KXT*. I was quite proven wrong when I listened to the title track, which is nine minutes long, and begins with some unsettling ambiance. “Blackstar” eventually reaches a noticeable tonal shift four minutes in, but the song subtly returns back to its original tone around the eight-minute mark, with the same drumbeat and overall energetic feel of the later half. The transition is pulled off really well, and had me wondering what other kinds of interesting things Bowie could be presenting in this album.
The rest of the album is a bit more typical in terms of song structure, but it doesn’t mean he stops really playing with the different directions he can push the sound he’s working with. “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)” are quite energetic jazz jams that sound like every musician involved had a lot of fun participating in them. The latter somewhat reminds me of the more instrumental, nervous performances of Talking Heads (think “Crosseyed and Painless” and “I Zimbra”). “Lazarus” is a slow, somber ballad that takes a softer and looser feel to it, perfectly meshing with the quite bleak lyrical messages expressed by Bowie as he ponders on things like death. This song is not named after this specific Biblical figure for nothing.
“Dollar Days” is similar, but much more powerful, which gives it a “power ballad” kind of feel. Yet, there’s a bit of a sense of restraint on that song as well (one being Bowie’s weak but very fitting vocals), which thankfully prevents it from reaching overblown levels of grandiosity that could’ve messily contrasted with both the message and the vocals. The song overall feels very reserved and worried both lyrically and sonically, which makes it an interesting take on the ballad after songs like “Thinking Out Loud” and “Fight Song”. “Girl Loves Me” is probably my favorite track in the album due to the way the instrument tracks are handled. Throughout the verses, only the relatively simple bass riff and drumbeat are heard alongside Bowie’s almost paranoid delivery, but the chorus adds a short orchestral overlay that, along with the much softer vocals Bowie provides, give the song a much more ambient and spacey feel. I love it when tracks can really change the entire feel of the song from such subtle changes like that.
And, of course, since this album does take a heavy influence from jazz, there are more than a few sax solos throughout the album, but they never feel like they were shoehorned in just for the sake of a solo, and almost always fit the mood of the song they’re on. My favorite example of this is in “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, where the numerous sax solos reminds me of the weird distortion-like instances of the sax solo on King Crimson’s “21th Century Schizoid Man”. “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days” also deserve credit for not only having some impressive technical playing but for also never overshadowing the slower, somber moods of those songs. It’s nice that people out there recognize the fact that the most impressive playing in a song doesn’t always have to be at the sonic foreground of a song.
None of these songs may be quite as well remembered as David Bowie’s other songs due to the status of his early works as classics. None of them probably would’ve received the attention they could’ve gotten had they been performed by a more recent band with potential to live up to rather than by one of the most established musical artists. It’s almost certain that none of these songs are really gonna get much radio play despite the “Davie Bowie label” due to their somewhat atypical sound compared to a lot of contemporaneously popular songs as well as their somewhat longer-than-average song length. But do not think that this record should be considered any more than a footnote in Bowie’s career. This is a very ambitious and well-crafted record from one of the most artistically ambitious figures of the past decade. Bowie has shown that even despite his health issues as well as his comfortable status as a beloved musician, he still continued to take great care in his craft and wanted to produce one more great piece of work, even if he may not have been able to properly express everything he had on his mind.
PRETTY NEAT MUSIC
FAV TRACKS: ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, Sue (Or In a Season of Crime), Girl Loves Me
LEAST FAV TRACK: NONE
- * This writer adores Steely Dan and ranks “Countdown to Ecstasy” as one of his favorite albums.