Wednesday, 20 January 2016

David Bowie's 'Blackstar' - Album Review

There are few artists out there who can boast a career as lengthy or as varied as that of David Bowie. He released his first self-titled debut album in 1967, and has been releasing new music pretty regularly ever since. Despite a rather quiet last decade, Bowie constantly transcended trends and expectations to produce music that was always original, always striking, and always interesting. During his near 50 year career, Bowie dabbled in just about every single music genre there is. Mixing rock, folk, soul, new wave, avant-garde, and electronica music was his key to success. He knew how far to take things too, and always reinvented himself before he got stale, and this ensured that he was always relevant to the popular music scene. This is why his death last week was such a big event. Bowie was so ingrained in popular culture that his passing has left a serious void that will never be filled. Despite being a fan of his work, I realised when he died that I only actually owned one of his studio albums: the legendary 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It is an album I enjoy a lot, but I think I am somewhat guilty of taking Bowie for granted. I never felt the need to explore his catalogue further, something which I intend to rectify as soon as possible. Bowie's twenty fifth, and sadly final, studio album Blackstar was already getting excellent reviews before his death. I had made a bit of a lazy mental note to check it out, but it was not until I saw the spooky video for single Lazarus the morning that I learnt of his passing that I decided to order a copy - making Blackstar the second Bowie album that I own. Despite not knowing his back catalogue intimately, I am still pretty familiar with large chunks as many of his songs are so well-known. Even with this fairly rudimentary knowledge, Blackstar still sounds like something completely new for Bowie, something which he continued to do right until the end. While listening to the album I hear chunks of Gary Numan's more modern albums, slices of Trent Reznor's more ambient and atmospheric work, and comparisons could even be drawn to Marilyn Manson's latest album The Pale Emperor. Blackstar is not an easy listen, and anyone expecting the glam-pop of his famous 1970s output will be disappointed. This is a haunting piece of work, and one clearly influenced by Bowie's impending death and his acceptance of his illness. It is likely that he knew this would be his farewell to the world, something which makes listening to Blackstar more powerful and emotional.

Some rather spacey piano melodies open the album as the near 10 minute title track gets underway. A collage of sounds mixes together well to create this dense soundscape, as a pulsing electronic drum beat cuts through the layers of keyboard and subtle guitar. Bowie's vocals throughout the album are unsurprisingly rather frail, but this only adds to the spooky, downbeat nature of the whole thing. The music of Blackstar is pretty restrained for the most part, with everything coming together in the service of a much bigger picture. Only Donny McCaslin's saxophone parts really stand out as a traditional 'lead' instrument, and his playing dominates the album. The second part of the song is quite airy, with lovely lush keyboard backing and a gentle drum pattern. The repeated lyrics of 'I'm a Blackstar' are pretty eerie though, and drag the song back from any upbeat zones it may seem to find itself in. Towards the end, the song reverts back to how it started, but even more haunting - in fact the song reminds me a little of classic horror soundtracks in places, it has that vibe. Despite it's length, the song never drags, and the gentle melodies stick with you for a long time after hearing it. 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore is quite different, and opens out with a big 1980s-sounding keyboard and drum combo, that has saxophone added to it for extra melody. This song is closest as the album gets to being upbeat and accessible, as Bowie croons the song in an almost lounge fashion. Tim Lefebvre's groovy bassline is pivotal to the new wave feel of the song, and he locks in well with Mark Guiliana's hollow-sounding drums. Bowie sounds like his old self here, showing off his unique vocal style, and hitting some rather impressive high notes in the process. With it's simple guitar pattern from Ben Monder, Lazarus starts out rather low-key, before some mournful keyboards and saxophone melodies swamp the sound. This is probably the album's stand-out song for me, as it has so much going on and Bowie's lyrics are excellent here. The contrast between the keyboard melody and the big, ringing, distorted guitar chords works well and is rather disconcerting. Lazarus is one of those songs that needs to be seen with the music video that was shot for it. I only saw it after I had learnt of Bowie's death, and it seemed to make perfect sense then. The spooky visuals really compliment the music and lyrics perfectly, and it forms a complete package.

Sue (or in a Season of Crime) has a bit of an old blues vibe, but played through the eyes of someone producing some electronica. The shuffle drum beat the drives the song has a very old-school feel to it, and the song's main guitar figure is quite old-school to in the way it is almost a traditional 'riff', something not really present on this album. The song never really changes that much throughout it's duration, and does start to get a little stale as it moves along. The keyboard sounds used as the song progresses though do change slightly, and it does seem to get slightly more oppressive as it moves along. Bowie's voice sometimes gets lost under the music too, which is annoying. Girl Loves Me almost sounds like it is influenced by hip-hop in some respects. The drum beat has that sort of rhythm to it, and Bowie's vocals are quite staccato in places, although not quite a rap. Other parts of the song are quite ghostly, with lots of effects put on Bowie's vocals to make him sound very distant - which works well. The two contrasting parts of the song do not seem to sit that well together though, and it does sound rather disjointed to me. There are definitely some hooks here, but it is not a song I would call a favourite. Jason Linder's piano opens Dollar Days, and it soon joined by simple acoustic guitar and drums. This is probably the most 'normal' song on the album, and sounds like a fairly typical ballad. It works well though, as Bowie's vocal melodies are interesting and strong, and the saxophone solos are very melodic. The saxophone is all over this album, and it really adds a lot to the sound. It is quite a mournful sounding instrument anyway, and is probably why it was used so much. Dollar Days segues nicely into the album's final song I Can't Give Everything Away as a fairly jaunty drum beat takes over with some floaty keyboards to accompany it. In some ways, the song is quite droney, as the music does not change that much throughout, but it seems to wash over you totally - and this works really well to close out the album. More bursts of saxophone and some effects-heavy guitar fill the gaps between Bowie's final lines, and it works well in a slightly haunting and understated way. Given that Blackstar will be Bowie's final studio album, that makes this a special album, even if it is not wholly to my taste. With Bowie's death, we have lost one of the true musical innovators of the past few decades, and many musicians owe a lot to him. He was creative and he pushed boundaries to the end, and for that he will ever have my, and many others', respect.

The album was released on 8th January 2016 via ISO Records. Below is his promotional video for Lazarus.

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