Released on January 8th
It was eerily like the perpetually forward-thinking David Bowie had it all planned. ★ (pronounced “Blackstar”), his 25th studio album released on his 69th birthday, had to be viewed in a completely different light when he died from cancer just two days later. His stunning loss and Blackstar’s universally glowing reviews translated into the icon’s best chart success since the 80s, making it his first ever number one album in America. It topped the UK album charts for three weeks straight before being dethroned…by one of his own compilation albums. Bowie also tied Elvis Presley’s record for the most simultaneous entries in the UK top 100 albums chart with 12 (Presley also set that record right after he died). Following Bowie’s death, he also shattered Vevo’s previous one-day high-mark for a music artist’s streamed video views with 51 million views from his catalog on January 11th. Adele previously held the record with 36 million views in one day after dropping her “Hello” video in October.
Blackstar finds Bowie steering himself back to more of the experimentation he’s built his entire career upon after the relatively “traditional” tone of his previous release, 2013’s unexpected The Next Day (which I reviewed here). Bowie set aside his regular stable of world-class musicians and turned to a New York-based jazz quartet lead by saxophonist Donny McCaslin to back him on his final album. That pairing inspired much speculation about this being a “Bowie jazz album”, which isn’t quite accurate...much to my relief.
Strong jazz elements do run throughout Blackstar, mostly via the front-and-centre placement of McCaslin’s saxophone, which plays a strong supporting role on “Dollar Days”, “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”, and “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)”. The two latter tracks originally appeared on the “Sue” single that was released in 2014 for Bowie’s Nothing Has Changed compilation album. They both benefit from Blackstar’s reworked versions — “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” softens the original’s drum sound to much greater effect and the frenzied “Sue” re-employs the original version’s drum ‘n’ bass-style percussion, while wisely significantly dialing down its overly grand horns and shaving almost three minutes off of the original’s drawn-out running time. Speaking of lengthy running times, the title track runs just a hair shy of ten minutes, but it’s essentially two very different-sounding songs joined together, eventually winding its way back to the musical thread established during the song’s first half. The ominous “Lazarus” (made even more haunting by its brilliant accompanying video) keeps a measured pace and the song’s spare musical arrangement effectively accentuates the intermittent distorted notes from guitarist Ben Monder. “Girl Loves Me” was my least favourite Blackstar track (partly because of the gibberish lyrics sung in Nadsat, an invented language from A Clockwork Orange), although Bowie does adopt an interesting singing style where he raises his pitch at the end of most of his vocal lines. After somewhat of a mid-album letdown, Blackstar goes out on a high note with superb album closers “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (featuring a standout guitar solo from Monder).
Blackstar certainly isn’t the most cohesive album, but it’s for damn sure always interesting, right down to the visually compelling CD jacket and liner notes featuring shiny black text on a black background. It’s yet another bold and challenging Bowie release that rewards patient listeners. Lyrically, Blackstar is a fairly dark album full of bleak themes, with numerous references to death that are obviously painful to hear now (including Look up here, I’m in heaven from “Lazarus”, a refrain of I’m dying to from “Dollar Days” that sounds eerily like I’m dying too, and merely the title of “I Can’t Give Everything Away”). Bowie bows out on a respectably high note worthy of his legacy, somehow pulling off the bizarrely unique and beautiful feat of incorporating his death into his final piece of art.