It’s almost a cliché to talk about how many times David Bowie has re-invented himself over the course of 25 albums. Even the most casual fans are well aware that he has tried just about every genre that secular music has to offer and for the most part done them well. Reinvention is no longer a subject that needs to be repeated for the sake of reviewing his latest LP Blackstar. However, it was nice to see Bowie harken back to his rock n roll days with 2013’s The Next Day, but even then I knew he wasn’t ready to become a nostalgia act just yet.
Just as he released his previous record 3 years ago, Bowie announced he was releasing a new album out of nowhere with very little in the way of mainstream press. It’s been nearly a decade since the last time he has performed publicly so it would have been an even bigger shock if he had announced a tour to support it before or after it’s release. Come to think of it, I’m not exactly sure if I would want to see Bowie head out on the road at this point. With outrageously priced tickets that would surely sell out in mere seconds, the demand would be that he perform only his hit songs from Ziggy Stardust era and probably stopping at a one off track from the soundtrack to The Labyrinth. Otherwise fans would be let down and would demand money back.
Bowie is clearly not that predictable. It would be a disservice to his artist integrity to be forced to stay within the confines of songs like “Let’s Dance” and “Changes.” Those are great songs no doubt, but we all know that the best Bowie is the Bowie who keeps us guessing as to what he will do next. On that account, Blackstar delivers.
The first thing I noticed upon my first listen was the rock n roll riffs of The Next Day being tossed out in favor of a more jazz influence. That’s not to say that Blackstar is a jazz album, because it isn’t, but there is no denying the feeling of sophistication that is brought to the table thanks to the sax and signature changes that is sprinkled throughout the journey.
The title track opens with a big risk of being over 10 minutes, but also starting the record off with one of it’s most ominous tracks. It dirges on at a hypnotic pace with chanting lyrics of what could easily be about murder, or at least some sort of desire for malevolent doings, before breaking into a Sgt.Pepper-esque signature change that briefly hints at the Bowie we all know and love before getting back into it’s doom and gloom groove.
This is where Blackstar really shines. It’s not afraid to give the listener hints of melody that’s text book Bowie, but it never sticks around long enough to make you feel at home. In fact, the over all theme to the album seems to be the ice cold loneliness of being lost in space, waiting to suffocate while starving to death or being trapped in a game of cat and mouse between you and an unseen entity. It may not be the first time Bowie has tipped his toes into dark places but it’s certainly an interesting take on bleak subject matters.
Not all of the songs on Blackstar are gloomy soundscapes of sinister intentions though. “Dollar Days” (my personal favorite track on the album) features a delicate acoustic guitar strum and near falsetto vocals, layered on top of a light string arrangement and free-form jazz inspired sax, that reminds me of “Space Oddity” more than he was probably intending. Then there’s the almost Hip-Hop influenced “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” where we greeted with the closest we’ll probably ever get to hearing what it would be like if Bowie ever tried to rap. Trust me, it’s not bad and it works surprisingly well, further proving that he can do ANY music style he attempts.
Closing the album is a reworking of a previously released song “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” where Bowie sings with no effects or processing, showcasing just how beautiful and angelic his voice has managed to stay throughout the years. It’s the only song on Blackstar that leaves you with a feeling of hope, even in spite of how dire the hook is performed, sounding as if he telling the listener that he can’t just give his artistic enigma away without some sort of catch.
Which leads me to one of the most interesting aspects of the album. The mystery. With only 7 songs and a lean 40 minute runtime, it sounds like this is just the tip of an experimental iceburg that we have some how wandered on to. It’s an ambitious exercise and I can’t help but to think (or hope) that these songs are more like clues to a bigger picture or an even more ambitious album in the future. I want to go deeper down this path and see where Bowie is willing to take us. Blackstar has been touted as sort of an ‘anti-pop’ album in the media, and while I agree that it’s not something I would recommend to people who haven’t at least listened to some of Bowie’s late 90s output, it’s not a complete wreck of unlistenable avant garde either. There is just as much beauty within these songs as there is experimentation.
At 69 years old, most artists of Bowie’s age are dipping into The Great American Songbook, doing cheesy renditions of songs tailor made for cruise liners. Bowie is better than that and instead given us a strange little album of mystery and intrigue that is much needed in today’s cold, lifeless music industry. It may not be his crowning achievement in all 25 albums released in the past near 50 years, and it may not set a new golden standard in what to expect in secular music, but it is an interesting album that proves David Bowie is at his creative best when he teases us with questions he may or may not answer. Blackstar is not an album for everyone, but not every Bowie album is.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.