As I listened to David Bowie’s new album Blackstar for the first time, the artist himself, unbeknownst to me at the time, was ascending into eternity. Bowie’s 25th album, and now his last, arrived January 8th on the icon’s 69th birthday. Two days later it would be announced in the night that Bowie was dead. He juked us all again. A surprise album. A surprise death. A true artist through his life’s final breath.
Instantly the dynamic of the music on the album changed. Blackstar couldn’t be more fitting in tone and timing. It’s extravagant, ghostly, teetering on the outskirts of what is considered to be a traditional rock and roll album. It swivels and sinks into the poorly lit backroom of the musical mansion Bowie built over his fifty-plus-year-career.
Blackstar is a seven-song voyage, a trek through the panicked headspace of someone too aware of their mortality. It shifts in moods and tempos, wandering, but never too far.
The title track is a near ten-minute ride alongside the Thin White Duke as he passes through the layers of Heaven. The song wears many faces, turning inside out and evolving with the minutes. At the midpoint of the song the instruments start to lose their beat, pacing around one another in odd rhythms slowing down. It’s the sound of our artist exiting earth life and throttling into the next. “I’m a black star,” he sings, catatonically.
After slowly being peeled during the first track, Blackstar picks up with “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore.” A heavyset drum and bass union churns through the song as it progresses into a perpetual Coleman swirl, horns gone akimbo. Bowie hits the high notes with a twisted sadness, a hidden anarchy while singing the title line. You can see his chiseled grin slowly rise with each word.
“Lazarus” is when the listener begins to really ache. The song, backed up with an authentically creepy video, saunters in with a clean, melancholic guitar scale and steady drums. But, then these soft devious horns slither in just slightly offbeat. When Bowie enters he sings, “Look up here / I’m in heaven,” and your heart skips a beat. In his slow drift outward he’s catching the wind currents like the bluebird without misgiving.
The album continues its seesaw with “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime).” Opening with a scattershot drumbeat, the song flails wildly. Genres are taken apart, thrown onto the floor and resculpted. Everything falls on the offbeat with Bowie weaving vocals in a posthumus quiver. “Sue, the clinic called / The x-ray’s fine,” he sings. The listener’s head ping pongs into full force headbanging by the finish.
Bowie gives some of his strongest, most outlandish, hair-raising vocals on Blackstar and “Girl Loves Me” represents that best. Lost on the calendar, Bowie sings, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” The song works on hypnosis, pulling the listener into a trance. The final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” finishes the album on an upbeat, celebratory note.
Blackstar is a lasting statement to not only David Bowie’s artistry, but to how he lived his life through that artistry. He worked hard through the end of his days to give us a product he’d be remembered by, a final soundtrack to the epilogue of a life lived in constant creation. Your man did us proud, Iman.