Album review: David Bowie – Blackstar

Words fail me but I’ll try anyway. Just last week I submitted a review on Blackstar and referred to it as a career high for David Bowie...

No one is immortal but I can’t believe that Bowie is now gone. I like a lot of music, of all types. Bowie performed virtually all of those types. He had his low points, his wilderness years and his comeback of the last three years has been particularly joyous and rewarding. Finding out that a large part of this was undertaken whilst he was aware of his own time on the planet coming to an end is difficult to compute. It certainly throws a different light on some of the lyrics to songs recently released. I’ve read a lot this mourning of people feeling like they’ve lost a family member. Thoughts are with Bowie’s actual family, his young child, his wife, all of them. As for his extended family of fans, listen to the music, read some books, watch some films and videos. One of the world’s most inventive and clever and thorough and thoughtful artists has finished creating. His music has sound tracked my life, right now it feels like it is my life. I’ll never stop listening to Bowie or being dumbstruck by the stature of the man. There are no more words. Here are David Bowie’s final recorded words:

I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal sons
The blackout hearts, the flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
I can’t give everything

David Bowie: “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

Read on for our in-depth Blackstar review…

Image courtesy of Helen Green

Image courtesy of Helen Green


So, less than two years since The Next Day landed as the best Bowie album since 1980 and exactly two years since Where Are We Now woke the world up from its Bowie-less slumber, the man’s back, on his 69th birthday, with another new album, and this time it stands up against his very best work. A bold claim, maybe, but let’s consider it….

Lead and title track Blackstar landed a few weeks back and simply blew me away. A ten-minute epic, effectively two songs knitted into a whole one, it’s mood, instrumentation (drum and bass beats, subculture jazz, near soulful middle section), lyrics, structure and well everything (including the super creepy video – see below) screamed out superior modern alternative pop/rock. The lyrics may be undecipherable, possibly autobiographical, possibly referencing the panic and fear in the world in these times of ISIS seeded terror, but they work with the (at times) barely structured music that still manages to form a complete whole. The middle section is as vocally complete as anything Bowie’s ever sung. The below the surface hook “I’m a Blackstar, I’m a Blackstar” is as triumphant as it is unsettling. This is superior Bowie, it could have sat supremely atop the Diamond Dogs album, quite a compliment. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of listening to it.

It’s hard to catch your breath after such an opening. Track two, Tis A Pity She Was A Whore was underwhelming in it’s demo form as the reverse of late 2013’s genre defying single Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), here though it’s transformed, full and a different beast. The title comes from a John Ford play and returns to the subject of the terrors of war (in this case WW1), a subject so fruitfully covered by Bowie on The Next Day. It’s features another great, at times jaw dropping Bowie vocal, especially on the lines “man, she punched me like a dude.”

Lazarus is from the play that Bowie has collaborated in the production of. It’s a vastly superior piece of alt.rock with jarring guitars, a steady beat, and mournful sax. The play continues the story of Thomas Newton, whom Bowie played on film back in the 70’s, an alien stranded on earth whilst searching for water for his home world. The lyrics also touch on the biblical character Lazarus who lives after dying. A couple of days ago this song also was released with an accompanying creepy video. The overall feeling so far is of music of intense power, as good as The Next Day was it didn’t have this presence, this confidence.

Four tracks and over half way in and a radical reworking of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) blasts in. Heavier than the original orchestral jazz recording, the song is perhaps even more unnerving than the original. The story of a relationship flailing amidst illness and infidelity, spiralling into murder. The disjointed drum and bass beats and sombre but pacey music lend an air of panic. This was always a fantastic song, I loved the original, and though quite different this is up there as at least an equal of the original. So far so stunning.

Girl Loves Me sounds by title like it’s some mid 80’s Bowie B-side. It is anything but. Phrased in Clockwork Orange viddy speech and oddball London slang, the song could be about an empowered woman or a man’s confidence and ego gone mad bolstered by an empowered woman. It’s a bit obscure, and though it may not touch the heights of the opening four tracks it’s still way more than album filler and again creaks under the weight of its own class.

Dollar Days is more softly melodic than all that’s preceded it. Lyrically it seems to be dealing with tough subject matter, maybe the migrant crisis that grips Europe at the moment? There’s a feeling of sacrifice, hardship and regret. Some great sax and percussion work underpin the song, and the urgency present in every song so far on this album remains just a strong here. The slightly understated vocal tends to add to an overall feel of urgency mixed with despair tinged with tiredness and regret.

The song then segues into I Can’t Give Everything Away. Another lilting melodic song, heralded by a Berlin era sounding harmonica, soft synths and a superb underpinning sax, the song may be about the ties of family even through horrific tests. I’m picturing mourning Islamic fathers grieving for sons turned by radical extremism. But who knows.

And that’s it. Seven songs, a blistering sense of urgency and though the pace might abate towards the end of the album, the quality doesn’t. This is very arguably an album that sits up there with the best in the Bowie canon, and in its title track has what is an absolute career highlight. Buy it.

Author – Ian, Romford store.

* As a footnote, having just listened to the actual CD the sound quality is way beyond the disc I burned a couple of days before from a download. Buy the CD or vinyl if you want to hear a masterpiece done justice.