Around a week ago I had the enviable task of reviewing the ‘Blackstar’ album (hey, it’s what we do and I got lucky – see below for original review). Like everyone, aside from the man himself (and his closest circle), I had no idea I was reviewing David Bowie’s parting address to the world.
On the surface he’d done nothing to overtly suggest it was the case, even posing for a photo, looking dapper and in fine form on the day of its release (his 69th birthday). The world now knows otherwise, and in the light of his passing, it seems achingly obvious that ‘Blackstar’ was his final goodbye.
The title track remains gloriously inscrutable; even the line “Something happened on the day he died” is couched in the third person to deflect us. We may never decipher its oblique mysteries. On other tracks it feels he just wanted to give us some great music, drenched in his inimitable style (job done!), though the line, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” from ‘Girl Loves Me’ now has a spooky resonance for those of us who spent that day in a trance of shock, sadness and disbelief.
But it’s the track ‘Lazarus’, with its accompanying clip that touches raw nerves, every lyric now speaking volumes, a man literally on his death bed.
In ‘Dollar Days’, he speaks of never seeing the English evergreens again (when asked in a 1999 interview about returning to live in England again one day, he replied “Oh yes, it’s a given.”), and tells us “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you”.
But what was he referring to with the final track, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’? The closely guarded secret of his imminent demise? That this album was the final communiqué from Major Tom before the circuit was broken forever? The lyrics are awash with spoilers, but we were blind to them, as losing him was simply inconceivable.
Or is it the credo of the Master Illusionist, who performs spellbinding tricks but will never reveal the method of their execution? Deep down we all knew that beyond the smoke and mirrors was a mortal man behind the curtain, but such was his mastery that we willingly suspended disbelief, right down to his last trick, where at the end of the Lazarus clip he climbs into the magician’s cabinet. We don’t need to look inside it to know that he’s vanished and it’s empty.
A final possibility is that it’s an almost apologetic statement concerning the part of himself he could never give us; the fiercely private family man, though he gave us everything else, even turning his own death into a work of art. But his passing still leaves an un-fillable black hole in our hearts, minds and lives…and it’s star-shaped.
ALBUM REVIEW: DAVID BOWIE – BLACKSTAR: Originally published on January 8th 2016
The title track teaser from Bowie’s 25th album did its job perfectly, by blindsiding everyone with its sheer extraordinariness. No-one saw that coming; the floating middle-eastern opening section, replete with mystical lyrics and wailing sax, staggering down torch-lit catacombs, only to then stumble into a heavenly ante-chamber of melodic treasure. But just as the descending chords lulled to their conclusion, another sucker-punch of discordance (that shouldn’t work but does) ruptured the sequence with the haunting “I’m a Blackstar!” coda. Ten minutes of strangeness, as jarringly original as ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was upon its release, and well placed as the album’s opening track.
So, as has often been said during his career “Where’s he going to go next?” Well, to the driving ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’, which opens up like an out-take from Gong’s ‘Flying Teapot’ (!), interspersed with Bowie’s hallmark vocal flourishes that conjure up bursts of ‘China Girl’, Lodger and Scary Monsters.
‘Lazarus’ reprises the earthbound alien Thomas Newton from ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, a plaintive ballad with a fuzzy Fripp feel, and like the previous track is awash with unrestrained saxophone. ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ doesn’t let up in the free-jazz workout stakes either, it’s a proper old wig-out. The drummer doesn’t let up a minute amid swathes of sonic swooshes and feedback guitars. Memories of a free festival indeed – if it was one in Somerset in the ‘90s where Ozric Tentacles splayed for five hours straight.
‘Girl Loves Me’ with its refrain “Where the fuck did Monday go?” stomps along, driven by little echoes of ‘Warszawa’ teutonic paranoia. Bowie’s music has been so much a part of the musical landscape for so long that it’s hard not to hear flashes of his past work in every note or syllable.
‘Dollar Days’ begins with the rustle of papers and an audible sigh (a reply to the ringing telephone and footsteps at the end of ‘Life On Mars’?) and is a lush piano and acoustic guitar led ballad (you can almost hear the sad fade-out of ‘Space Oddity’ in its opening chords) that gradually bursts its banks as the melancholic sax takes the fore, mimicking the Broadway crescendo of ‘Rock ’n Roll Suicide’.
The album terminates with ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, the verse chord structure reminiscent of Ziggy’s ‘Soul Love’. “Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent” he sings over a lush pop arrangement that flies along majestically before finally fading ominously with a rich protracted synth chord.
It’s an uncompromising album, from the artist who perhaps encapsulates the word, and one that will deliver more depth with very listen. At 69 years of age he’s still capable of surprising us, but then again that’s what he’s spent his entire career doing.