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Album Review: David Bowie “Blackstar”

How in all hell does a musician-come-journalist living in near-catastrophic awe of a musical demigod review the final musical testament almost immediately upon his ascension from the physical realm? The answer is heart wrenching and simple: Stick on some headphones, close the mind shut like a Labyrinth trap, start typing and hit 'send' to the editor before the brain gets a chance to retract a single word.

Enter Blackstar, the title track of David Bowie's 25th and final studio album, released two days prior to his passing. I'll be honest, I'm devastated by Bowie's death and I do not take to the song. An immediately epic and mesmerising soundscape draws me in as Bowie sings "I'm a black star/I'm not a gangster" through metallic auto-tuning. Every sound, from snare to synth to woodwind, is utterly clear and every instrument precisely placed, yet my brain squirms at an underlying sonic disturbance buried beneath a subtly disruptive homage to dissonant harmony.

I hate it, I hate that he's dead and I'm confounded by the effortless musical peak and trough, the colourful but disturbing pass from catchy melodic pop sensibilities to Eastern harmonic scales and Arabic synthesizer. It is as if Atoms For Peace discovered a tougher and more accessible catchment of frequencies designed to induce confusion, fear, and awe. I'm beset with a vision of being strapped to the seat of a hovering spacecraft, staring up at a gargantuan stone God descending Pharaoh-like toward a kneeling mass, the black hole of its mouth clear as night as it hovers "at the centre of it all". Most of all I hate admitting that this nearly 10-minute monstrosity so far removed from “Starman” and “Life on Mars” is without doubt a work of absolute thematic and aural genius. 

The album’s second track Tis a Pity She Was a Whore is more upbeat and follows Bowie's long running trend of brass-backed pop-rock overlaid with throaty softness, with the occasional cracking treble tenor and surprisingly strong soprano. A highlight is the replacement saxophone work by Donny McCaslin over Bowie's original performance. Just like Blackstar, this track asks the listener if its creator isn't entirely mad while simultaneously pointing out the premeditation of his instrumentation. 

Lazarus might have taken its heady hit of influence from The XX if David Bowie had been less than an originator in his own right, only ever plagiarising from the vastness of space and his own cosmic concepts. "Look up here, I'm in Heaven, I've got scars that can't be seen" he croons darkly, taking a momentary break from the eclectic anti-pop so characteristic of his twenty-first century work. We can only wonder with lyrics like "everybody knows me now" if the song and album are as inspired by Kendrick Lamar's “To Pimp a Butterfly” as claimed, or instead a clever and visceral verbal self-portrait.

The resurgence of re-recorded track Sue (Or In A Season of Crime) deftly intersperses frenetic beats with lightly distorted guitar work and disparate Moog-inspired effects, as if Bowie is gifting a new measure of heavy tonality and melody to the atonal exit section of Space Oddity.

Fifth track Girl Loves Me clarifies our real-life Ziggy Stardust always intended to continue expressing outer space through sound via electronica.  In this and preceding tracks the influence of Kendrick Lamar is most evident lyrically rather than musically whilst the track’s instrumentation and melodies surge in all directions.

With piano and saxophone parts reminiscent to the 80’s and Bowie's classic song style, homogenised by a touch of Al Stewart, Dollar Days builds like any classic cop-show era theme song to a big guitar solo finish. The fade lends an air of absolute finality, but like any well-crafted encore it's a false ending.

The seventh and final song I Can't Give Everything Away is the closest Bowie comes to conventional pop on “Blackstar”, despite his continual adaptation of mainstream instrumentation and clear, shiny sounds.  Here the rap-inspired brass-rich opus is underscored with images of death and eternity while drawing heavily on a saxophone solo, this time adding synthetic strings and watery keys. Floating somewhere over Labyrinth and In The Heat of the Night, I Can't Give Everything Away climaxes into a metal-influenced lead break before the fading strains of a retro synthesizer bring the recording to a close.

Released two days prior to the passing of a truly great artist, “Blackstar” was nothing less than a complete experience. Whether induced by grief listening to the exit theme of a man so rich in musical history or the after effects of an aural climb through a creation more creature than album, it hurt to hear it. However, the combination of producer Tony Visconti, Bowie's many contributors, and Bowie himself ensured this meandering masterpiece remained succinct and catchy enough to inspire, taunt, and tease. 

With only seven tracks the record is surprisingly long but the time passes quickly and even sections difficult to enjoyably define remain infectious. Easily a soundtrack piece of its own, “Blackstar” is a work of gargantuan genius, a many layered aural enigma reminding every earthling that if David Bowie had truly given everything away he might just have blown our minds. 

R.I.P David Bowie 8/1/1947 – 10/1/2016 (Aged 69)

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