My impromptu and ill-prepared Bowie Week kicks off in earnest today with this review of David Bowie‘s final album, Blackstar. It’s probably clear from my reviews of movies that I don’t have much applicable awareness of film theory. Well the bad news is that my music knowledge is equal to my cinema knowledge divided by… infinity. The good news is that I am a human being with emotions that allow for a visceral reaction to various forms of media. And really, what is a review besides a summation of such a response? And David Bowie’s moody, intense, and heartfelt last statement elicits just that.
The first time I listen to an album, I am struck first by the way that it sounds. “Duh,” you say to yourself. “Of course you are – this is a terrible review.” Well please give me an opportunity to explain what I’m trying to say. Thank you. I’m not special, I’m sure we’re all in the same boat – the first few times that I listen to new music I’m hearing it as song, I can’t isolate instruments or vocals and especially not lyrics. The music is the music, first and foremost.
So how does Blackstar sound? Bowie’s voice is surprisingly strong, considering his age and what we now know to be his fading health. And while the titular track kicks the album off with distorted and doubled vocals, “Blackstar” features a second movement in which the musician’s familiar voice shines through, almost like a beacon declaring that he’s not gone just yet. And even now that the man has passed – his voice remains.
The musicianship is fascinating as well. I haven’t followed Bowie’s late career, but the man has never been afraid to flow with the times – like the band Spinal Tap, but without being disingenuous. Blackstar features a sound that blends some of the driving beat associated with contemporary art-rock like Radiohead and Arcade Fire with the emotive aspects of jazz, exemplified by the saxophone present in most of the songs. (Side note: I normally have very little patience for the sax due to upsetting memories of the year in middle school during which I played the instrument; the screechier moments still make my skin crawl, but it is effectively deployed throughout this album.) The mixture of the two sounds is rich and gratifying.
I usually only begin to register the lyrics and message of an album by around the fourth or fifth re-listen. Blackstar isn’t too enigmatic, however, especially given what we now know. Bowie’s farewell statement is pretty clearly defined in interesting ways. Death and illness imagery is present in almost every song on the album. The only songs not containing explicit reference to mortality are “Girl Loves Me” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the latter of which is the album’s final track and definitely feels like it – seemingly expressing some sadness and sorrow at the idea that this is really the end.
Of course even now, having listened to the Blackstar multiple times with the lyrics to guide me, I can’t really stay what half of these songs are “about.” And intentionally so, I imagine – “Girl Loves Me” is written in some crazy slang, but the indelible refrain of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” speaks volumes (eerie, when you consider Bowie died on a Sunday). There are endless interpretations of all of the lines in the album (and I’ve already read some that make me nod along, convinced, and some that make make me shake my baffled head), and that’s the way the artist always liked it. A song’s meaning doesn’t just come from the lyrics. It comes from the mood.
Blackstar is a melancholy experience – kind of sad, kind of tragic. But it’s also triumphant; a statement of the fact that even though David Bowie’s physical form has died, the man lives on. And not in the cosmic, existential sense that I briefly discussed yesterday, but in a concrete sense of the existence of his music. Bowie’s discography isn’t going anywhere, nor is this sentimental capper, which celebrates the Bowie that came before while taking one last opportunity to do something new. New and vital. Bowie wasn’t just interested in touring the aspects of his music career that made him great – he wanted to blaze one final new trail. And if you don’t believe me, check out the always-captivating-if-obtuse video for “Blackstar.” It is… unique. For sure. Exactly what the artist was always going for.
Maybe it’s slightly mendacious for me to put so much effort into understand Bowie now that he has passed away. Perhaps things are made a little better by the fact that the character of Bowie is essentially unknowable. I’ll continue to try, however, and I’ll continue to listen to Blackstar as I do so. For now, the album receives four out of five solitary candles: