by James Calvet
On January 10th 2016 legendary musician, songwriter, actor and artist David Bowie passed away due to cancer. Through his nearly fifty-year career, Bowie created an unmistakable style that is poised, charismatic, inventive and unabashedly strange. Like a musical chameleon, Bowie utilized genres such as glam rock, electronic, experimental music and beyond. Albums such as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Hunky Dory, Low, Station to Station and many others made Bowie the driving force for bringing experimental arts and music to the mainstream eye. Come 2016, the lead single and title for his 25th album was released titled Blackstar. The track is a 10-minute long epic with dark, broody droney chords over jittery jazzy drums. The track evolves into a melodic refrain to bring it to an uplifting finish. With the lead single being his most experimental in years, the new album is set to be one of his most interesting.
The album as a whole is a dark and mysterious listen but provides enough pop structure to please the masses of Bowie fans. The album is also full of very steady grooves with an electronic tinge, making this rock album more well-rounded and easy to listen to. Bowie reportedly was heavily inspired by artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips while writing this album, which really shine through, most notably on the title track of the album.
The third track "Lazarus" is one of the most interesting tracks on the album in that the lyrics are a stark, strange look at death. The opening line "Look up here, I'm In Heaven" are incredibly hard hitting when listened to after the artist has passed. Instead of being a song sung for pure artistic expression, the lyrics read more like a swan song, almost like a final gift music before his passing. With this in mind, Blackstar becomes a more personal and touching listen with more sentiment than what lies on the surface.
Though Bowie uses session musicians for the majority of this album, the musicianship provides a lot for the listener to pick apart. Most notably, the saxophone that appears throughout the album really shines through. On the title track "Blackstar" and "Dollar Days" the saxophone soulfully croons in an unconventional fashion making for a soothing and weird listen. On the fast, punky track "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)" the saxophone gets caught spinning in a whirlwind of guitars and drums squawking in musical breaks lifting the track into cacophonous territory.
A personal favorite on the album, "Girl Loves Me", is an explicit and stomping track that's incredibly catchy but offers lyrics that are equally cryptic and confusing. The one-note song is focused around a bass and drum groove that features repetitive and almost stream of consciousness lyrics working almost as an art piece rather than a straight forward song. The opening lines of the track read almost as gobbledygook as Bowie shouts "Cheena so sound, so titi up this malcheck, say" that sounds vaguely reminiscent of the language used in the Clockwork Orange novel.
But the line that has the most significant impact is "Where the fuck did Monday go?" which Bowie repeats over and over in the track. Strangely enough, the singer passed away on a Sunday, making Monday the time of mourning. Though this may be a coincidence in this seemingly stream of consciousness track, it still becomes increasingly poignant with the context of the events surrounding it. Blackstar is an end-of-career album that stands just as interesting as his Berlin trilogy albums or even his glam rock classics of the 1970's.
The instrumentation and execution is stronger and more experimental than Bowie has been in years and makes this album to be his best in well over twenty years. The influence and composition is inventive and exciting compared to his recent albums and regardless of the context surrounding it, Blackstar is one of the most important in his discography. But with the death of David Bowie just two days after this album, it reads and listens more as a swan song or parting gift from the artist, and a beautiful one at that. Strangely, this album seems very aware of his death that would follow its release. With the themes, execution and musicianship on this record, Blackstar reveals itself deeper and deeper with every listen and acts as the best way that Bowie could end his career and his beautiful, charismatic, influential life.