1/11/16 Foreword: This review has a lot more weight now, given the recent news. When I wrote the review portion of this article, he was alive and well, so that did not play a factor into my analysis. I didn’t publish this the other day after all because I still was trying to figure the album out and give it some more listens. I will add a little to what I previously wrote in light of Mr. Bowie’s passing. Before I get to the review itself, I have a few things to say.
Coming back to this review was difficult, because this is one of those rare instances where a person I’ve never met and would never meet passes away and it hits me pretty hard. I have seen many people say “how can you mourn someone you never knew” lately and I understand the premise of what they have to say, but we don’t always need a personal relationship to develop some sort of attachment or interest in them as a person. In this case, David Bowie played a massive role in my musical education and enlightenment growing up, and I owe some of my love of music to him.
I first discovered David Bowie, interestingly enough, not from his musical career per se, but from Bowie as an actor. The movie Labyrinth, which was released on the year of my birth, combined my childhood interest of muppets with good music I had been recently discovering like Genesis and The Who. Bowie’s songs in the film turned me on to his music, and everything grew from there. Sure, I guarantee I had heard some Bowie songs on the radio but didn’t identify him yet, and when I did, my eyes were opened. I remember going to the library after school and reading music encyclopedias and learning about the glory of Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke. Some of it was too adult for me at the time, but as I grew older, I gained a deeper appreciation for him as a performer and a person. If this sounds terribly sappy, it’s because it is and that’s just something you’ll just have to deal with.
Shortly after high school, a buddy of mine got me a birthday gift of what turned out to be his final tour on DVD. I don’t even know how many times I watched that DVD, which as a concert film from 2004, captured most of Bowie’s music from the 70s to his current album of Reality on stage. I am grateful to my buddy for getting me that gift, and I am grateful to David Bowie for making the music that I grew up with, so to speak. It’s tough, since he had already made some 16 albums before I was alive, so I couldn’t see his presence live until after most of his characters and stage personality had slowed down. I regret that I never got to see him live, but since he stopped touring in 2004, there wasn’t much I could do. By the time I had really gotten into his music, there was no way I could have seen it live.
All that being said, I’ll let you read the review now that I wrote up recently but didn’t publish yet, and I appreciate you putting up with my personal spin on the foreword of this review. David Bowie meant a great deal to me, and he will be missed. Someone on the internet, someone named Dean Podesta, wrote earlier today that “the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.” I think that about sums it up.
It’s a new year, and on 2016, the first album that deserves to be reviewed is David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar! Unlike many other reviews from last year, I don’t think I need to introduce the band or tell you about his other work and any of that. If you don’t know who David Bowie is, there’s nothing I can do to help you. This is Bowie’s first album since the surprising release of The Next Day back in 2013, which was a total secret and a wonderful surprise for music fans who thought Bowie had retired from making music. I can give you a good news-bad news double piece of information about this album, and I’ll start with the bad news. The bad news is we’ll never hear anything from Blackstar (or The Next Day for that matter) live, because Bowie has it made it abundantly clear he’s staying away from tours and just recording albums and making videos. The good news? Blackstar is a monster. I’m shocked at its depth, complexity, and raw emotion, especially for a guy releasing this album on his 69th birthday. Is this album a birthday present for his fans or himself? Either way, I’ll take it. Also, can you believe this is his 25th album?
We start off with the title track on this album, the just-under 10 minute dramatic journey of Blackstar. The music video is a sight to behold, and when I first saw it a couple months ago, I didn’t know what to say. It was eerie, complicated, and had a lot of imagery that I wasn’t sure if I should read into. It’s haunting stuff, and echoes back to the earlier days in his career of Station to Station and the experimental and unstable sound that has always made him one of those musicians that people always say “is ahead of his time.” He’s done some strange music before, but this may be the most expansive reach that he’s made so far. It’s very different from track to track, and each song goes in a different direction from the last. Blackstar starts wild, Tis a Pity goes a little more dark poppy, and then the floor drops out with the next track on the album, Lazarus.
What do you make of a song that starts off with “Look up here, I’m in heaven” and then sings about being “free, just like that bluebird”? You’ll really need to watch the music video to get a context of what he’s talking about, and I’m still trying to decipher the meaning of the blind man with the buttoned eyes. If you have any ideas, feel free to share them with me. Let’s take a look (or listen) next at the final track on the album, I Can’t Give Everything Away.
1/11/16 addition: This song is frighteningly prophetic, and I’m convinced that he was fully aware of what was going on and wrote this song as a goodbye to everyone. Between Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away, there’s no doubt in my mind that this was to be, as some have said already, his final gift of music to the world. It’s powerful stuff. The last words in Lazarus are “Oh I’ll be free, just like that bluebird, oh I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me?” Heavy. It is very Bowie-esque to do something like this, and what a way to go out. Imagine the pain he must have been going through every day while writing, recording and making the videos. The opening section of the Lazarus video of Bowie in the bed could be interpreted as him on his deathbed, and we know full well that his music has always been deep and mysterious. Back to the review!
For a man with a 40+ year career, it’s amazing how mysterious he can still be with his music. It’s sad, moving, and beautiful. Why don’t more bands end their albums like this? I know Bowie is an exception and not the rule, but still. There isn’t much I have to criticize about this album, because it’s quite unique and what would I compare it to? Would I line up other albums of his against this one? That’s not fair. Would I compare it to his more recent releases? Maybe, but the only other album within 10 years was The Next Day. I think this is the kind of album that stands alone and apart from the rest. My only slight problem with the album, and it’s wholly subjective, is his treatment of Girl Loves Me with his quasi-rapping. It didn’t resonate with me like the rest of the album did, but if six of the seven tracks wow me, there’s not much more to go from there.
Bowie has always been a visionary. He does things with music that no one else seems to think of, and that’s served him well for over 40 years. I can’t express enough how glad I am that he released this album, and even though it’s been in the works for a long time, it was worth the wait. This is the kind of album, as I have observed, that takes multiple listens to really digest. I’ve been talking about it with other people and trying to figure it out, and I think some of the intrigue lasts with the fact that I may never figure it out. I’m ok with that.
I love that we can start off the new year with an album like this, where I have nothing but positive things to say about it. My ratings system, in case you’re new to these reviews, is from 1-15, although I tend to stay above 10 with few exceptions. I pick these albums every week because they interest me in some special way or another, and this one hit me right in the face. I can’t stop listening to it. I happily and proudly give Blackstar 15 Ratings Units out of 15. This is a one of a kind album, and I don’t know what year this album would be at home in, but I’m glad it’s out now in 2016. If it had come out years ago, I might not have been able to appreciate it within the context of his career as well as my personal enjoyment of his music for so long. I can’t wait for his next album, and I hope it comes out sooner than later. I’m sure he wrote several other tracks that didn’t make it on to this album, so I look forward to hearing those as well. I’m glad to be back in 2016, and I’m extra glad that Blackstar started off 2016 with a bang.
1/11/2016 final comment: Wow. I’m still in shock about what happened, and I don’t want to believe it’s real. I have a small hope that he will rise again in a few days, just like the literary Lazarus invoked by his song. If it’s truly the end, then goodbye, Ziggy Stardust. Farewell, Major Tom. So long, Aladdin Sane. Until next time, Thin White Duke. Good night, Goblin King. Sleep well, David Bowie. You will be missed more than we even know.
Thanks for reading.