January 2016, within the circles of music writers, will now forever be known as the time in which many thousands of music reviewers attempted to master the illustrious review-cum-obituary, something that became more of a necessity than a choice, when addressing David Bowie’s swansong, Blackstar. This is without a doubt one of the most difficult reviews I have done, not only because of the context, but because the album itself is a fairly divisive and out-there piece, and judging this on music alone it occasionally fails to hold itself up, which is contrary to its tense and emotional context.
But Blackstar is an album that can not, and should not, be talked about without its context. There were comments coming up during the post-death re-assessment along the lines of “if Bowie didn’t die this would be getting worse reviews”, but I don’t really think they get it. Bowie dying is an intrinsic part of this album, and it was something he always intended to be a part of this album. When his death was so simply announced on his facebook page, the world stood in shock at the words “18-month cancer battle”. He had known his fate for a whole eighteen months. In fact, for a good portion of that he likely knew exactly how long he had left. And Bowie, being the ultra-pretentious snob that he was, decided that he needed to make an album at the point of his death. I honestly don’t know how he did it – releasing those videos and songs and doing promo for the album knowing that he was about to die and create a shockwave through all the people he was making art for, but that is the sign of a true artist – dedicated to his craft.
I’d imagine Bowie would have liked us to have had a bit more time with the album before his passing, so that the world got to know it as it originally was, before his death and the revelations of his terminal illness transformed it into the way we see it now. It’s so true to Bowie’s style as a proper, avant-garde (in the traditional sense of the term, not the modern sense which is synonymous with throwing a circus in for no reason) artist, in that with the knowledge of his imminent death he sculpted a piece of art that no one had ever done or thought about doing before – one that embraces death, the afterlife, legacy, and transcendence, but contains a very real and very powerful extra layer to it, something that, in itself, transcends just music. Links to J Dilla’s Donuts are obvious, but with Donuts Dilla attempted to create his greatest work on his deathbed, whereas Bowie has tried to do that whilst making a poignant statement about death and what it means. There were some very black jokes coming up after his death, relating to the quote from last year involving Blackstar’s influence from experimental hip hop trio Death Grips, that the influence he took from them was their tendency to mark their albums with ridiculous publicity stunts. The term “publicity stunt” is loaded with connotations of cash-grab and capitalistic intent, which is obviously not true here, but the feeling remains that Bowie decided with his one final record he would absolutely shock the world into oblivion, and have people talking about him for months and months non-stop, and he wouldn’t even be there to witness it. “Everybody knows me now”, he quirks in “Lazarus”.
I do regret not being part of those who heard Blackstar in its original form, i.e. before it was distorted and changed by this tragic event, as I am dead certain my thoughts on it would have been completely different. Those who got to simply judge this as an album before it became what it is have such a unique viewpoint on it, of which I have to admit I am slightly envious. I was so utterly impressed by the title track upon its release a few months ago, and I would have been interested too see what I would have written without this fascinating and morbid context. I even had the album for a few days beforehand, but scheduling kept me from it. I believe it was going to be on my playlist on the 12th, and I obviously rushed to hear it the moment I heard about his death. This is why I feel that Bowie did pass a bit sooner than he would have ultimately planned, because even fans of his music had barely had the time to take in Blackstar as it was. This is an album that was released, and heard, and everyone was to judge it, before the second act comes and gives the album an entire new meaning. The scope of this art is so brilliant that I’m actually surprised that we haven’t heard it before from a musician that has come across the horrible situation that is known terminal illness, but at the same time it makes so much sense that the man would be David Bowie.
And now comes the truly difficult part of the review – discussing the music. I can ramble on for hours about how conceptually this is one of Bowie’s finest moments as an artist, but at the end of the day I have to address the actual sounds on this record, and although the context and circumstance do enhance them, this is still a mighty mixed bag.
“Blackstar”, the song, is absolutely wonderful. It had to be – it was part of the plan to get everyone talking about Bowie. And it totally worked – the subdued electronic beats, the scary, drained Scott Walker impression, the loose jazzy sax ditties, the progressive structure, the surrealist and fascinating video – within a week of its release it had everyone in the music scene discussing Bowie. I remember thinking about this very review, and about how I could do a sort of prog take on the album, because that song was easily progressive enough, and discuss his impact on progressive rock (obviously, any review of this that doesn’t focus on his death is contextually irrelevant). It wasn’t as if this album had exploded after he died, everyone was all over it already.
I will concede that the song does feel a touch like a paint-by-numbers experimental track – the Radiohead references in the drum programming are a touch obvious, and with the addition of the sax you do jump directly to “The National Anthem” as a point of reference. The Scott Walker-esque vocals are a pretty fantastic reference from Bowie, but they are again pretty obvious in terms of the influence source. But above all the mimicry it is still a fantastic song. The production is smooth and modern but not over-polished, the vocals are gorgeously passionate, and the combination of the electronics and the Scott Walker adds to a pretty freaky and neat post-apocalyptic sci-fi vibe which I totally love. And regardless, it’s still so impressive to hear a 69-year-old man who has influenced billions taking influence in turn from those who came after him, instead of pretending he’s above them like so many old musicians do. As a song I would probably call it his strongest individual track since Station to Station, and by far the best I’ve heard from 2016 so far.
“Lazarus” is another strong number, although it is the song that is affected the most by the post-mortem analysis than anything else on the record. It is a frankly crushing deathbed confession of a song, with a morbid music video to match. The part in the video where Bowie anxiously writes what I assume is a bucket list is so powerful next to this album, because you can imagine him, when discovering his illness, as writing this very record on that bucket list. Driven by a droning and tired sax-led atmosphere and some grim and mangled guitars, the production here is absolutely gorgeous. I adore the post-punk vibes in the drum pattern, and there’s a notable Radiohead influence again, from their more emotive and moody tracks, but Bowie makes it his own through a heartbreakingly painful vocal performance.
But then there’s the rest of the album. Now, it’s plainly clear that the title track and “Lazarus” were written after he was aware of his death, but the rest almost seem like irrelevant filler, that continues a lot of the music lines (though few of the lyrical) of those two tracks, but with significantly less heart and compositional gravitas. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” contains a commendable vocal performance, a danceable groove, some pretty chuckle-worthy lines, and a generally experimental and interesting sound, but sandwiched between the two monoliths of death and dignity it just sounds ridiculously out of place. It’s the sort of song you’d expect as a B-side – it’s pretty funny the first two times, but the more you hear it the more irritating it gets. “Girl Loves Me” takes that irritation to the extreme, to the point in which I can’t really say I enjoy anything about it, except maybe the production. The vocals are undeniably impressive from a technical standpoint, but good lord are they annoying, and the lyrics are distractingly poor too.
There are good technical moments on the other tracks – the drumming on “Sue” is absolutely unreal, the vocals are frequently impressive, and the production pretty much never stops being flawless, but there isn’t all too much of the grim emotional darkness that was in the two singles. There’s a bit in the closing number “I Can’t Give Anything Away”, but the song just doesn’t quite have the compositional dexterity to impress me beyond its context as a final farewell. It honestly sounds quite like a cross between No-Man and Kenny G, and regardless of how heartfelt the lyrics are I can’t totally get behind it as a song.
Blackstar is undeniably one of the most important works of art of this decade so far, and at times is a brilliantly fitting conclusion to the life of a brilliant man, with two songs that I would probably name as my two favourites thus far in 2016 being here. But at other times it just feels like he was having a laugh and chucked a bunch of experimental nonsense in to fill up the album. As much as I totally want to get behind this record and call it the masterpiece it wants to be, there is just too much wrong with it for me to ignore. That does not stop it from being a good album, and at times a great one, but it really should be more than it actually is. Musically there are moments of glory – the electronic beats and frequent use of saxophone are always impressive, and the production is consistently mind-blowing, but a few moments of deviation in the composition and a frequent feeling of a lack of direction bring it down as an album.