Tuesday, May 17, 2016

David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)

Blackstar is the last album of David Bowie, a chameleon of an artist who surely needs no thorough introduction. It was released on his 69th birthday and this is the first album not to feature Bowie himself on the cover, although his name is represented by the small stars on the bottom of it. Blackstar is certainly an album that cannot be comprehended in one listening; it is a far cry from his previous work, The Next Day, which was released 3 years ago and was more of a crowd-pleaser, proving that he’s still got it. But Blackstar seems to not care about its popularity, it has a mission of its own, supposedly being the last bow to the fans. 

Bowie is forever reinventing himself, which is apparent also with this album. Officially, the genre of Blackstar is jazz/art rock/experimental rock, but I would rather define it as let’s mix everything together and add a tinge of nostalgia and the element of surprise type of music. The style is all over the place in a sort of organised manner, the one combining element being the saxophone, as he has involved the jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin for the album. As a youth, saxophone was the first instrument Bowie learned to play; and the fact that the sax is such a big feature on this album, one could say that he ended with where he began. 

The album contains only 7 songs, but there is something for everyone – from brilliant, upbeat and quirky tracks to the darkness and melancholy of impending death; basically what can be considered typical Bowie. His voice is employed as an instrument of its own, representing a great variety, although that has always been characteristic of Bowie. At the same time, his age and quite possibly the exhaustion from the disease are clearly heard in his voice compared to his earlier works. 

Blackstar contains hints to Bowie’s past career (and it is very difficult to come up with new content when you have been in the industry for five decades), but on the whole, this new music is something quite different and it could as well be described as experimental jazz. It is fantastically weird, as per typical Bowie. However, the character for this album is not as flashy and unpolished as his previous personas; like Ziggy, for example. He has blended different sounds, rhythms and his own voice to create something bizarre, futuristic and unexpected; but this is the kind of stuff Bowie excels in, even at the end of his sixties and in hindsight, the end of his life (at least on this planet). 

As Blackstar was released, the subject and lyrics of “Lazarus” and “Blackstar” could have then been viewed as yet another weird Bowie-phase, singing of mortality, solitary candles and execution, accompanied by the melancholy and dark melody. Now, it all makes sense, and one can imagine Bowie-fans applauding in the background – the man has done it again, making art of his own death. Like the lyrics of “Lazarus” say: “This way, or no way,” he single-handedly dictated the terms of this final good-bye. 

It is definitely not an easy-listening background music, nor should it be. The lyrics of “Lazarus” claim “I’ve got nothing left to lose” –  that becomes very evident with this album, as it is not an overall crowd-pleaser with its dark themes, quirky music videos and the 10-minute long opening song. But as he had nothing to lose – why then not experiment to the fullest and give radio stations this 10-minute track that simply is so versatile that it cannot be cut down for a mere 3-minute easy-listening track. 

The album kicks off with “Blackstar” and as I said previously, it certainly is not lacking in various nuances. Accompanied by the film-like music video, it is all very adventurous. It is as if Bowie suddenly decided to include everything in it in the sense of melody, vocals and imagery – including skulls covered in jewels, women with tails, etc; and changing the pace and the mood throughout the song. “Blackstar” perfectly summarises the notion of what the rest of the album is going to be like – the perfect harmony of bizarreness and the unexpected. The video itself is very intense and it can be quite disturbing (people who resemble scarecrows being crucified, need I say more); definitely not an uplifting video to watch. And for this reason, I think that the album would not have gotten the amount of attention as it did, had he not sadly passed away two days after the album’s release. Some might consider it a terrific publicity trick. 

Before things get gloomy again, there is a nice interlude called “’Tis a pity she was a whore”. Despite the title, it is one of the most upbeat tracks on the album, unlike the rest of it where there is the inevitable sense of mortality dominating the theme. Although not one of Bowie’s most brilliant masterpieces, it is the perfect contrast put between the two creepy and mysterious tracks, “Blackstar” and “Lazarus”. 

“Lazarus” is very dark, melancholic and with the most prophetic lyrics: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven” (although some question whether or not he was actually referring to his own life). Together with the music video, it is cold and truly haunting. All in all, very Bowie-like – making art based around his inevitable death, I would have expected nothing less from him. Here he has also used his own voice to add to the effect of nearing one’s death – it is raspy and sounds as if coming through gritted teeth. 

Visually, it hints to his past career with the choice of the costume he is wearing, as he has used a very similar one about four decades ago. A connection to his own disease can be made in the video – when the times are bad, they are very bad, but there are also moments of feeling better, which here result in creating music and art. For me, those bouts of energy represent the true Bowie – forevermore creating new content and dancing around in strange costumes. However, the end of the video hits with reality – he is retreating into the wardrobe, representing the fact that he has to go into the unavoidable darkness. 

The biggest surprise of the album is “Girl Loves Me”. Compared with the rest of the album, it is from a genre of its own. The song is rather cheeky, quite aggressive and it seems as if Bowie suddenly decided that, as he is going to be 69 it is the high time to become a rapper/gangster. It is characterised by screechy vocals and nonchalant cockiness as he sings: “Who the fuck's gonna mess with me?” It is total nonsense, and yet, with it being so unexpected and completely new even for him, it has a charm of its own. Maybe the tables have turned with creating this song and Bowie, who usually inspires other artists, has now himself been inspired by contemporary rappers. 

The album ends with a perfectly titled track “I Can't Give Everything Away” which suggests that even after being under the public eye for nearly 50 years, he still remains a mystery and simply cannot give everything about himself or his career away. This song also hints at the past as the beginning notes of it are very similar to the tune from decades back – “A New Career in a New Town”. 

For me, David Bowie is an Artist with a capital letter, throughout his five decades of experimentation he has provided this kind of strange, out-of-this-world music. Amidst all this new experimentation, there is still an element that combines it all together and makes it familiar – the theme of alienation. All in all, he has gone out with a bang as befits this giant of an artist. 

Gristel Pihlakas

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