Tuesday 12 January 2016

Review: David Bowie – 'Blackstar'


It is with some regret that I am reviewing this album after the sad passing of David Bowie today. I had been waiting for its release to do a review and had planned to write it today after the chance to fully absorb it. But today I found myself at my computer penning an obituary first, the aftermath of which will inevitably serve to clarify the cryptic lyrics of this album and add poignancy to the album from now on.

After a decade away from music, Bowie returned to us suddenly with 2013's 'The Next Day' – a wonderfully nostalgic and avant garde tinged rock album that instantly re-established Bowie as a musical force in yet another decade. Fast forward two years and after a new 'best of' compilation, a big box set of re-releases from his early years, and a new musical based on the cult classic film 'The Man Who Fell To Earth', he looked like a man with a new energy. The tip of this creative spear is 'Blackstar' – a bleak and dark blend of jazz, avant garde, electronics and art rock that heavily evokes Bowie's lauded Berlin period of the late 1970s.

The tracks are few in number (seven in total), but are often lengthy compositions that twist and evolve across their length. The title track 'Blackstar' is a grand and opulent piece permeated by jarring rhythms, hauntingly atmospheric synths and strings, as well as a low throbbing bass and cutting saxophone that evokes the heady experimentalism of his Berlin years.

Songs like ''Tis A Pity She's A Whore', 'Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)', 'Girl Loves Me', and 'Dollar Days' delve into the jazzy rock dissonance of 'Aladdin Sane' mixed with the left-field construction of '1. Outside' as well as the soulful offerings of 'Heathen' and 'The Next Day'. But along with the title track it is the second single 'Lazarus' and the heart wrenching closing track 'I Can't Give Everything' that provide the album's undeniable stand out moments that cut deep below the skin.

The album is wonderfully produced with Tony Visconti's expertise evident all over it as with many of Bowie's classic albums. The band this time is primarily a jazz band led by
New York saxophonist Donny McCaslin which serves to heighten the left-field feel of the album. It is a wonderful blend of experimental, emotional and accessible that only Bowie can pull-off.

As we know now Bowie's health was failing him during the making of this album. But his voice sounds as beautiful as ever. Mature, soulful, deep and with that unmistakeable vibrato he sounds like he is singing right into your spirit. The lyrics may have been cryptic until today, but they are raw and cutting now as their true meaning is revealed. And this only adds to the power and resonance of his performance.

'Blackstar' is a wonderful, powerful and well-calculated parting shot for an artist who truly was an artist. This album links Bowie to his past but it still feels new, daring and pushing the envelope of rock music. It is an epitaph from the artist to his fans, but it is also a brilliantly inspire album in its own right that even before Bowie's untimely death would be hard to push from the top of a lot of people's best of the year lists.  

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