Where were you when you found out David Bowie died? Seems like a dream or a hypothetical question, doesn’t it? Sitting on the couch last night, sipping on a drink while watching some old silent movies from 90 years ago (hipster alert!), I saw something come across my Facebook feed that seemed like a hoax – “David Bowie dead at age 69 after an 18 month battle with cancer”. I still couldn’t believe it. I waited an hour or so and checked again – confirmed as true. I couldn’t believe it. David Bowie seemed indestructible, and even odder – had released an album 2 days ago. My initial impressions “David Bowie ★ 1st impressions – I have enjoyed this record the 1st two times I’ve listened to it. Gratuitous sax is an apt description, but it fits the music well. My favorite Bowie album (by far) is Station to Station, and this one reminds me a bit of that one. Much better than The Next Day, but as far as modern Bowie goes I’d rate it below Earthling and Heathen. Some of my favorite Bowie lyrics “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” along with lyrics that I absolutely hate “Man, she punched me like a dude”. Happy 69th to David Jones aka David Bowie. A solid record.” In the context of David Bowie’s death, I’ve given Blackstar about a dozen more spins. And my perspective has changed.
The Next Day signaled the return of David Bowie in 2013, after a 10 year retirement period spurred on by health issues. The album was a welcome return, hinting at the past whilst looking towards the future. It wasn’t quite as strong as the albums Bowie was making before his sudden retirement, but it still added several classics to the canon. I don’t mind the classicist views, but I am a child of the 90’s – I loved when Bowie experimented with industrial and drum & bass. In fact, the one time I was fortunate enough to see David Bowie in concert was with Nine Inch Nails in late 1995. So, to read historical revisionism type reviews of his 90’s output was troubling to me on a personal level. At any rate, to make a long story short, Blackstar recaptures some of that mid 90’s experimentation. It has the added bonus of being the strongest David Bowie album since the mid 70’s. And I don’t say that lightly.
Blackstar opens the album with an epic, similar to how Station to Station opened it’s namesake album. Skittering beats with dour vocal treatments abound. Electronic flourishes embellish the track, reminding me of that mid 90’s period that I love so much. Did someone mention sax? Lots of sax on this song (and album). It suits the music perfectly. Is it a confessional? Is it about ISIS? I don’t know, but lyrics like this “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside” may provide a clue. A 10 minute masterpiece that only grows in stature with repeated listens. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore takes its title from a 17th century tragedy by John Ford. It is a groove based song that wouldn’t have sounded out-of-place on 1995’s Outside or 1997’s Earthling. Although previously released as a b-side, it appears here in a re-recorded, superior version. It has my least favorite lyric “Man, she punched me like a dude” alongside my favorite use of the saxophone on the record (gloriously unhinged). Lazarus was a great song before we lost Major Tom – now it is a chilling goodbye from Ziggy. Opening lines are “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”. Bowie sounds resigned and resolved, all at once. Emotional sax lines echo his lyrics. My favorite song on the album. Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) again harkens back to the drum & bass era of the mid 90’s. Previously released as a single in 2014, it appears here in a re-recorded version. A deep album cut. Girl Loves Me signals a shift towards a slightly pop vibe for the rest of the album. This song features James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem on drums. It grooves, sways, and gets lodged in your brain. I don’t think another David Bowie song exists that curses so much – by the end of the tune, the lyric “Where the fuck did Monday go?” has become a mantra. It is repeated almost 10 times. Dollar Days is the only song that wasn’t presented to the band in demo form and features a pop hook alongside a soulful jazz saxophone delivery. It’d be a hit single in another time, another planet. I Can’t Give Everything Away reminded me of another Bowie song whose name escapes me. No matter, this is a perfect song to close the album with. The lyrics are haunting “I know something is very wrong / Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes”. The saxophone is all over this song again. Familiar, yet different. A fitting epitaph.
David Bowie has left one of his finest records as a goodbye to his fans. He is truly one of the only artists that the classic rockers, the punks, the new wavers, the freaks, and the people going about their everyday lives can agree on. He was an enigma, a genius, misunderstood, reclusive, and a visionary. One of the only artists (along with Neil Young and Peter Gabriel era Genesis) that I can commiserate over with my Dad. As I mentioned earlier in this piece, I saw David Bowie live once – in a joint tour with Nine Inch Nails. Forward looking, barely scraping his rich past. It was fitting, and yet – one of the highlights of the hundreds of concerts that I’ve seen. David Bowie will live forever in our hearts, and this album is the best farewell gift an artist has ever bestowed on the fans. Farewell, Major Tom.
Verdict: Goodbye, David Bowie
For Fans of: David Bowie
- ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore
- Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)
- Girl Loves Me
- Dollar Days
- I Can’t Give Everything Away