By: Brier Stucky
Blackstar, David Bowie’s 28th and sadly final studio album, is a challenging one to digest, and even more difficult to critique due to the circumstances. Released on January 8th, Bowie’s 69th birthday, the album had been out for just two days before Bowie passed after an 18 month battle with cancer. The news shocked the world, as well as myself, and while some may argue that the album should be critiqued solely on the album itself, it now seems nearly impossible to separate Blackstar from the context under which it was released.
This is not to say that the music itself is not deserving of praise; in fact, it is a quite beautiful, surreal experience, and one of the artist’s best in recent memory. The album is reminiscent of the Bowie’s more experimental side, such as his 1977 classics Low and Heroes. However, he doesn’t seek to copy or reuse his old styles, but rather push the limits of progressive rock, combining elements of electronic music, jazz, and experimental with his signature glam rock style. The album’s influences are apparent, ranging from Radiohead’s Kid A to the recent work of hip hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips. But this style feels right up Bowie’s alley, and rather than feeling unauthentic and out of place, it seems rather fitting that such a progressive, boundary-pushing artist ends his career with a progressive, boundary-pushing album.
The album’s title track and lead single is perhaps the album’s best, a near ten minute track that is one of Bowie’s most strangest and haunting tracks ever, built upon an odd drum beat and chilling strings. Bowie’s voice is given an equally chilling vocal effect to match the eeriness of the track. The track’s second half feels a bit more familiar for Bowie, leaning towards his glam rock roots, but is equally enjoyable as another great ballad of Bowie’s. The album’s instrumentation as a whole fits perfectly with the title track, with some leaning towards the more experimental side, and others being slower ballads.
However, the real star of the album is Bowie himself, particular his lyrics. Coupled with his recent passing, the album’s lyrics are for more clear as Bowie spends the entire album exploring the concept of death, which is evident from the first track. The lyrics read “Something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a metre and stepped aside, somebody else took his place, and bravely cried I’m a blackstar”. While I won’t try to decipher the lyrics, something best left up to the individual listener, it’s undeniable what the album’s focus is.
The second track “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” feels like a musical freak out, with Bowie hollering and gasping over the top of incredibly wild free jazz instrumentation. Naturally the concept of death is a scary one for all of us, and times like this one appear throughout the album as Bowie leads us through an examination of the topic. The following track “Lazarus” is a calmer look at both the struggles of life and death, as he sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen, I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen, everybody knows me now”. The song provides a sobering look at the questions one must cope with when facing death, and coupled with its rather sad melody and piercing guitars, it’s one of the most sobering and sad songs on the entire album. And yet, it feels reassuring in some way, especially with Bowie’s final lyrics on the track, singing that he’ll be free, “just like that bluebird”.
Blackstar is a very dense listen, both sonically and lyrically. It’s packed with emotional depth that requires re-listening to better understand. The album is surreal, sad, eerie, and yet a very fitting sendoff for one the greatest musical artists of all time. I’ve only began to scrape the surface of what this album has to offer, and while there is much more to be said, it’s better that you listen to the album for yourself to experience its power. Needless to say, Blackstar is nothing short of excellent, and while it’s incredibly sad to lose such a powerful artist, this album cements Bowie’s legacy as one of the greats.