I am really glad that I am able to review this album; when I started this blog I thought that David Bowie was out of the game and not because I did not rate him, I thought he had just stepped to the side as was enjoying his retirement (as did everyone else). But then he released the single "Where Are We Now?" and everything changed and after that we had the superb 'The Next Day' (my childish review attached here) and it was just a thrill to have the White Duke back amongst us. I have never been the biggest Bowie fan, but I have always enjoyed his music; as I have grown so have my appreciation for his work - I still hold that "Strangers When We Meet" is one of the finest songs ever and "Everyone Says Hi" is a hidden gem that people will hold up as a modern classic in the years to come. With 'The Next Day' (my early amateurish review cleverly linked here) he seemed to be kicking out against the signs of age and defying death (whilst admitting a brief bit of fear of the inevitable). It was a really good album, but for some it seemed to strain under the weight of its past; lots of people were hoping for the past and they were also disappointed that he did not release "Let's Dance" part two - but that has never been his statement, he has always gone for a change. So when I heard he was going to release a new album Blackstar (or ★ as it is stylised) which has been released on his 69th birthday, I made it clear to the team that it was mine (I can be nice, but sometimes I have to be boss). Before I start, I want to address something; during recent interviews Mr Bowie has noted that this album was influenced by Kendrick Lamar & his album 'How to Pimp a Butterfly'.... now whilst this might have been the case due to a leap of musical direction for some people it has already smacked as another attempt for Mr Bowie to leap on the latest music fad. I will look at it at the end, but some people have been bitter before the album have even been released - wait till it is out before slagging it off! Anyway, with that bit it is time to see how this album has turned out....
“Blackstar” starts the album and this is very avant-garde, off-beat drums and rhythms given to swings, peaks and lulls. It goes between off the wall/out the box patterns, to smooth sections and Mr Bowie saying he is a Blackstar, not a pop, film or gang star. I can see a small influence from Kendrick Lamar to the drumming in parts of this song, but the influence is slight as there is more of the be-bop jazz, avant-garde noise musing of the 50’s onwards here; it also feels a lot like Bowie is still aware of his past on this song as you have pieces of the song that sound like a warped version of “Let’s Dance” to these ears. To say it is not a challenging piece is an understatement as it is just under ten minutes in length which will put off the casual Bowie fans from the start, the social chameleon has set about reinventing himself once again with this song and to start with such a song can only be seen as a deliberate sign that he is once more stretching his musical wings (in a way that was not immediately showing on ‘The Next Day’). I think it is a brave song and whilst it might not be his best one, it will be one that is talked about in years to come. A re-recording of “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” follows on with an aggressive drumming style and a strong saxophone piece lay on top of the music. Bowie sounds stronger on this song and it is a natural twin to “Jump They Say” off the album ‘White Tie, Black Noise’; the feeling of the song is that of an unhinge maverick attacking the world and taking it to hell in a burning hand basket. It is a stellar track from the opening beat to the ending wails, the lyrical word play is as stunning as ever and it is automatically one of Bowie’s strongest track; not just of this album or recent form, just one of his strongest tracks ever. “Lazarus” has the taste of following on from “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, a task that would sink a weaker number if handled incorrectly. Starting in with a slower feeling that will lull people into a false sense of security, we are in the middle of ‘1. Outsider’ era Bowie in terms of music and lyrical delivery. It is just a beautiful, aggressive piece of music that more than matches “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ and it is not down to the singing on this one (although Mr Bowie sounds immaculate on here). The music is just jaw-droopingly good; I mean it is note perfect as you would expect but still it manages to give an element of surprise which is there on each listen. It grows with each listen and you hear more every time you hear the song, three songs in and all is going incredibly well.
“Sue (Or in a Season of Crime” is the fourth track which had previously been released as a single for the last Greatest Hits collection of David Bowie, this too has been re-recorded (“’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” was the b-side to “Sue….”). This version is shorter than the original release and is once again an aggressive number, frantic drumming, loud guitars, low and moody wood instruments and all the time you are dragged along as it does not let you rest. I like this version, it is a good song whichever format that you listen to it – sometimes a song needs to go through a few recordings till it is right and this one works for me. “Girl Love Me” follows on and Bowie is reaching the higher etches of his vocal range on the beginning of the song, when the song kicks in it is one that is simple to hear and a very aggressive number one more. The tone of the lyrics is harsh, the music is sparse and the bass & synths are the prominent instruments here; it is not an easy listen and takes a few lists to really sink in, but once it is there it is just as rewards as anything else on this album. But because it takes longer, it is the track on the album which I was least keen on (still love it though – so take from that what you will). The penultimate song (I know!!!!) is called “Dollar Days”, you can rest assured that Mr Bowie is in full artist mode here and not in his hit factory mode; it starts off with a gentle beginning, light wood instrumentation drifting in the breeze and as soon as he gets to the microphone it all changes. The edge is so sharp to these words that it is a song that you could never really relax to, but this is not that type of album and song. As the song processes it becomes a harsher, darker song that does not give an inch or rest bite to the audience, it is the musical equivalent to the scene on ‘A Clockwork Orange’ when they are reprogramming Alex and he feels a little unwell. It is such a headfuck and it is also glorious once more, I really do not want this album to end…. But end it must and the last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away” and you have an unusual time signature on the main section of the keyboards, the vocals is classic Bowie as you would expect, the wood instrumentation is flawless, the light shining from this song is as bright as our sun and it compliments every other song on the album in such a way that it is probably illegal in ten countries around the world. How fragile does he sound when he is musing about giving everything away, whilst still sounding as strong as he ever was. The guitar solo at the end mixing with the saxophone is superb and I am hooked until it ends and I am spent…...
Wow, just wow. That is one of the best albums that David Bowie has released ever, not just recently or for the last few decades – ever. It is one of those moments where everything else is blown out of the water and you know that you are hearing something special. It is a jazz heavy album from a rock star who we all thought was grown old gracefully, well he has just stuck two fingers up at that idea and released a glorious piece of art and we are only eight days into the new year. I would question the fact that two of the songs are re-recordings, I could question his desire to name drop Kendrick Lamar, I could question the partial star symbols – none of that means anything as this album blows all those thoughts out of the water. It may not have a "Strangers When We Meet" or a "Queen Bitch", but it has a collective spirit which is so rare in music these days (sadly). If ‘The Next Day’ was the rock star facing his mortality, this is the artist fighting on; I have to say that even with the year in single digits, I would not be surprised if this is my album of 2016.
10 out of ten - This is proof that there is a God
Top track - Lazarus
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You can stream Blackstar on Tidal here.