Album Review: David Bowie - Blackstar
by Polly Hember
David Bowie’s beautiful and difficult album Blackstar is shrouded in shock and grief. The seven-track cacophony of warped notes, scrambled jazz saxophone and ethereal pop is ingrained with dense literary and theatrical references. A brilliant album that deals with illness and mortality whilst propelling both Bowie (and his listener) into the unknown – a beautiful black hole of musical experimentation.
There is a gloomy elegance that accompanies the album. Ambient and melancholy, each track is soulful, frantic and ever so slightly menacing. Be warned: the chaos is hypnotic. Eerie jazz notes are punctuated with angry apathy, with references to Norse history, Jacobean dramas, and the Bible. It’s busy, bewildering and strangely beautiful.
The first track and title for the whole album, ‘Blackstar’ is perhaps the most extreme; it’s restless, brooding and busy. Caught somewhere between industrial pop-rock, airy folk and jazz, bizarre chord variations, this is exciting and electric. Bowie enthusiasts have seemingly handled this as a key to unlock the album, a code to be cracked, an epiphany waiting to encroach on us amidst the musical fragmentation. So, what does it mean? Is it the voice of a man, diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago, who is grappling with the painful uncertainty of the future? Is it Bowie’s response to the rise of Isis?
This compelling interpretation arose from the offhand remark made by Donny McCaslin, New York musician whose electro-jazz band forms the backing of the album. ‘Blackstar’ deals with the horror of the future, so despite being denied by Bowie’s spokesperson, this critical interpretation still resonates sharply.
The second track ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ is a frantic amalgamation of avant-garde improvisation and Bowie’s eerie murmurs. Drawing on the tragedy of it’s namesake, John Ford’s seventeenth century play which spews images of masque dancers, spilt blood, resignation and revenge, it propels the album forwards into uncertainty, to the single ‘Lazarus’. Biblical scripture tells of a dead man who Jesus resurrects, which resonates strongly with Bowie’s predilection for inventing characters and letting them go into non-existence, so that they can arise endlessly in the form of music every time someone plays vintage Bowie. From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, from Major Tom, through to Alladin Sane, to Halloween Jack, to Bowie himself, the first line “Look up here, I’m in heaven” strikes sharply with the sad reality of Bowie’s passing, and also celebrates his innovative creative experimentation that brought these characters to life.
The album threatens to disintegrate almost completely into experimentation; the track ‘Girl Loves Me’ supplies fragmented drum beats and disparate guitars and keyboards meshing together whilst Bowie asks angrily “where the fuck did Monday go?” repeatedly. Punctuated by shards of Nadsat vernacular from A Clockwork Orange, the gay subculture slang language Polari and other neologisms, the lyrics seem indecipherable at a first listen.
Blackstar’s true triumph is the confusion that it leaves in its wake. In a time in music culture where straightforward, typical hits from the likes of One Direction and Justin Bieber occupy the charts, Bowie’s creative endeavour offers a different way of listening to music to the masses. Defiantly withholding any meaning or key to understanding, Bowie’s creativity challenges the reader in ways that we are unprepared for. The dense and atmospheric instrumental backdrop and Bowie’s peculiar and poignant lyrics deny the listener the instant gratification that we expect from traditional pop. Bowie’s last track on the album wryly communicates this sense of evasion: ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, and acts as a beautiful, open invitation to interpretation and reflection. Blackstar shoots off into a nebulous galaxy, away from the any known constellation or solar system – too fast for us to catch more than a sprinkle of black-stardust as it whirls by.