First Impressions: David Bowie’s Blackstar

by: Josh Sczykutowicz

David Bowie’s latest album, Blackstar, shines defiantly…

Bowie-Blackstar-vinylcover

As elusive guitar loops swoop in to join haunting, layered vocals paired with an industrial, electronic drum beat1, so begins the first and title track of David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar. With a daunting catalogue of twenty studio albums under his belt, David Bowie triumphantly returns at sixty-nine years old (Blackstar was released on his birthday this past Friday) and manages to achieve an invigorating freshness on this album while replicating the sonic alchemy that marked his most experimental and fascinating works of old2. While most people receive gifts on their birthday, Bowie seems more than happy to give them in Blackstar, an album where these gifts are sprawling, frantic, and yet somehow also patient. Where dark, jazzy coasts get carved by rushing waves of synths and spiraling saxophone notes.

His last outing, The Next Day, a surprise to everyone after a decade of musical silence, proved to the world that Bowie still had it. Blackstar advances this apriorism in jaw-dropping fashion. How exactly does he do it? How is someone at his age, let alone stature, capable of still topping himself? Many would credit his consistent freshness to the various costumes and personas he’s worn over the years, but any other artist who’s done the same is proof that that’s only good for so long. There is far more to it.

Blackstar is a deeply experimental album layered with hints of hip-hop, jazz, electronica, and new wave. But what’s remarkable about this odd masterpiece is the profound personality present within the songs. Where the ghost of a man reaches out across his lifeline with enchanted, seeking vocals, manifesting that reach into a shape that resides beneath the surface of a seemingly serene ocean of swirling jazz. An ocean fed by rivers of icy loops and laced with webs of soaring synths, all the while giving one the feeling that something deeper is looming in the shadows just out of sight. Although ghostly, Blackstar may very well be the closest glimpse of Bowie, the man behind the curtain, in decades. This is a rare occurrence, the sounds of an artist who is one of most influential members of his generation, shaping an entire swath of culture singlehandedly, choosing to look back on his life without having it feel retrospective.

At his best, Bowie has always seemed ten steps ahead of the rest of us. Blackstar is an album that breaks with the path the rest of the music industry is stuck taking. It’s bold and avant garde at a time when safe and catchy sells. Bowie’s previous album, The Next Day, was something of a throwback to “rock n’ roll” for him, and many of his fans felt it lacked the “freshness” that they had become accustomed to receiving. This album is for those fans; equal parts haunting, passionate, energetic, eerie, droning, and potent. Blackstar portrays Bowie as an aging master still at the top of his game, accomplishing what so few legends manage to accomplish in their later years: staying relevant. Bowie may be flirting with seventy these days, but you’d never guess it upon listening to Backstar.

Each track on Blackstar is its own song, but they all join together and serve to form one massive track, where a fantastical blend of synths, deep-baritone vocals, and layered keyboards whirl through the soundscape like snow flurries. It’s an album that’s meant to be taken in as a whole, in an age where so many take their music a la carte. Blackstar is defiant of the current trends, and yet totally aware, and at a relatively short forty-one minutes in length, it’s both brisk and wholly engrossing. It’s an album rife with arresting compositions and lyrics that rival the revealing mysteries of any of Bowie’s past works. Almost no one is capable of releasing a record like this so late into their career. Many of Bowie’s peers (or as close as you can get for someone who has always seemed so peerless) fell into the drudgery of doing the same thing, over and over. Lou Reed passed away still experimenting to his last breath, but it often failed to live up to his greatest heights. Bowie is surely in a league of his own and his latest album is further evidence of this truth.

Blackstar closes with an incredible burst of energy, and in stark contrast to how the album opens. While the title track, “Blackstar,” incorporates saxophones that feel looming, sinister, and sparse, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” blasts passionately and explorative. Guitars flow like mercury on the track and the song culminates with Bowie singing in the final verse, “Seeing more and feeling less / saying No but meaning Yes / this is all I ever meant / that’s the message that I sent.” Could this imply that the blindfolded Bowie we see in the album’s music videos and promotional photos isn’t blinded as an impairment, but rather as a supplement, as way of preserving emotional integrity, lest he be desensitized? On “Blackstar,” what begins with one of the most uncomfortablly genius and seductively dark tracks of Bowie’s illustrious career pivots one hundred and eighty degrees and ends with a song bursting with colorful shades of life and reflection, and beaming with the powerful rays of light that have shone free of Bowie’s towering black star. For an album so full of reflection and talk of death, Blackstar closes with something as emotionally-charged and powerfully compelling as just about anything he produced in his youth.

If this is indeed David Bowie’s final album, it is an excellent cap to an exceptional career. But the energy present in Blackstar, and the sheer brilliance and creativity on display throughout this wondrous work of art, portrays an artist with still more to give. Whether this is a momentous final bow or the click of the starter pistol for another lap of the race, what Blackstar surely is is an early challenge to the rest of 2016’s impending releases. Bowie has once again raised the bar, and I would be surprised if there are any artists out there with the abilities to reach it.

Defiant of all age and typical career trajectory, perhaps Bowie is able to stand so strong against the weathering of time because for so much it, he was the one writing all the rules to begin with. Any doubts anyone has had about Bowie’s ability to stay relevant are not just erased with the release of Blackstar, they’re obliterated to pieces. From the sexy sulk of saxophone on “Lazarus” to the thumping energy of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” to the seductive heresy of “Blackstar” and to the heart-wrenching harmonica of “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Bowie has yet again crafted an absolutely essential work of art.

  1. Reminiscent of Bowie’s Trent Reznor-influenced album, released in 1995, Outside. []
  2. The number of Berlin Trilogy comparisons that this is guaranteed to earn is staggering, and only in a good way. []

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