This album is as elusive as it is angular. But then isn’t Bowie always like that? Never has popular music witnessed such a relentlessly innovative and shape-shifting creator as David Bowie. He was ahead of the curve throughout, even when not at the top of his fame. So it should come as no surprise that this album is full of surprises.
From the opening moments, the aim seems to rub our noses in our mortality. Not surprising, when Bowie was himself dying of cancer. He knew his time was running out, but he couldn’t have known how quickly (or that he’d die two days after his 69th birthday and album’s release).
Two songs were previously released (Sue and Tis a Pity She’s a Whore) – and Lazarus was written for an off-Broadway musical Bowie created, picking up on his Man Who Fell To Earth. That said, the album does feel like a whole – there is great musical ingenuity, and each track has its individual flavour. But together, they take us an extremely personal, and intensely emotional, journey to the grave… and beyond.
- The Villa of Ormen and other hints (Guardian)
- Allusions to Bowie’s hero Elvis and his own Black Star (Telegraph)
- The significance of the cover art (NME)
- The occult influences of Blackstar
- The beautiful meaninglessness of Blackstar (New Yorker)
What I do want to do is pick up a few threads that occurred to me as I’ve listened, and discussed with a few friends more knowledgeable than I on all matters Bowie (especially @StephenHance1)
Many have noted the range of musical styles which this album draws together. The influence of jazz is perhaps the most noticeable, with sax and guitar solos which soar over the rest of the band; but there is also a driving but tight rhythm section which gives it hardness, even aggression at times. At times there are sounds which seem industrial or digital – at any rate, they’re dehumanised and mechanical, but somehow the human players manage to resist their relentless cycles. This is obvious from the start in Tis a pity she’s a whore.
Sometimes the arrangement and melody are eerie and unsettling – as with the opening of Blackstar – only to be carried off into some ethereal (narcotic-induced) space, as takes place in Blackstar around the words ‘Something happened on the day he died‘. Lazarus feels more melancholic and nostalgic musically, dense brass arrangements and an unchanging rhythm section. Sue (Or in a season of Crime) has the urgency of a cinematic chase sequence, but the vocal line floats above it in anxiety and tension, until eventually drowned out by the frenetic and cacophonous arrangement.
The last two tracks feel like a return to gentler times, musically speaking. Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything are recognisably Bowie-like derivative – nor derivative, for sure, they might have fit in with his stuff in the 80s or 90s perhaps – especially with the Steve Wonder style harmonica solo and the return of the sax. This is not to suggest that they are without anxiety, however. There is still something looking and dark – for that reason they seem the most privately poignant tracks in the set.
But above all, each song is compelling and interesting – for all their apparent musical simplicity there is always something to keep one listening.
Looking beyond the inevitable
- Blackstar: on the day of execution… Something happened on the day he died
- Sue: The clinic called The x-ray’s fine… Sue, goodbye
- Lazarus: Look up here, I’m in heaven… Look up here, man, I’m in danger
- Girl Loves me: Where the f*** did Monday go?
- Dollar Days: If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to… I’m dying to… I’m falling down Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you
- I can’t give everything away: I know something is very wrong pulse, skull, Seeing more and feeling less