Finally got round to listening to ‘Blackstar’, which in the context of the death of David Bowie proved to be a cathartic yet delightful experience. In the current musical climate Bowie’s final (?) work stands out as profoundly daring, easily eclipsing much of what passes for popular culture nowadays. It is befitting that such an artist has been so experimental, creatively speaking, right to the end; producing a work that surely rates among his best.
“Ain’t that just like me?” (Lazarus)
There’s a great deal of musical history wrapped up among these songs, as if reflecting upon the five decades Bowie’s career has spanned. You can hear the echoes of time in the jazz riffing, the vocal melodies, the varied guitar parts and the electronic elements, further listens revealing ever deeper textures to the music.
The single, ‘Blackstar’, opens the show in dramatic fashion with pulsating break beats and repetitive vocals, the sweeping orchestration and piercing saxophone adding depth to the challenging opening section. The mid-section provides sharp contrast however, the familiar melody reminding me of the Space Oddity era, with its tempo changes and storytelling vibe as the insistent refrain worms its way into the subconscious.
‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ follows with uptempo drumming and off kilter riffing of the horns, a very jazzy prelude to the laid back vibe of the intro to ‘Lazarus’. Hauntingly beautiful saxophone then soothes the discordant crashes as Bowie’s poignantly familiar voice subtly building the emotional intensity alongside skittering sax breaks that pull at the heartstrings. Under the circumstances the first person lyrics are emotive to say the least, adding greater dimension to this already sublime song, the atmospheric guitar lines reminiscent of The Cure. Superb.
‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ is not as easy to get to grips with, but it works in the context of the album; the dark jazz vibe and staccato guitars that ricochet off the irregular rhythms make it a challenging listen. The bright simple vocal melody of ‘Girl Loves Me’ soon takes an equally dark turn as the cello riff pounds along to elements of electronica and break beats pulsating beneath the surface.
The final two tracks make for more comfortable, yet deeply moving listening. Easy piano and smoky saxophone tease an introduction to ‘Dollar Days’ and the seventies tinged folky melancholia of this hauntingly autobiographical track. The saxophone swells like a bursting heart as David sings “I’m dying too” – it’s emotional stuff, the piano picking away slowly in the background before searing guitars segue into the rolling beats of ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, whose vocal melody is classic Bowie. The orchestration is beautiful as we get all the textures of David’s voice; the saxophone runs and Gilmour-esque guitar lines bringing the record to an optimistic close.
On Blackstar Bowie appears to have tossed the shackles that had contained him and allowed his artistic expression to flow in profoundly moving fashion. It is a challenging yet disconcertingly wonderful record, but somehow a fitting finale to the life of one of the most important entertainers of our time. Oh my.