Expectation: The final album from legendary music and pop culture icon David Bowie. Bowie has changed his style numerous times throughout his career, and people expected he may do so again when he said his latest album was inspired by To Pimp a Butterfly. No one could have guessed just out there he would go.
- Blackstar – Beginning with a haunting harmony over drawling cellos, slowly building in intensity over a crisp drum beat and peppered synths until the huge first hit, when several new layers of vocals and strings suddenly appear only to leave just as quickly. And then there’s a sax solo. If this sounds like the sort of thing you’d enjoy, then you’re in for a wild ride, because the song is barely getting started. When Bowie finally sings in his more typical style, its as if the ominous gloom that had accumulated throughout the song is suddenly blown away, only to creep back in slowly.
- Tis a Pity She Was a Whore – Sustained synth chords and a more traditional song structure make this song far more accessible to fans of Bowie’s classic work, but this is still out there. Really out there. Mainly because the bridges between Bowie’s vocals are filled with frantically squealing saxophones that sound more like they’re each playing their own solo than in a duet. And its awesome.
- Lazarus – If you’re trying to trick someone into listening to it, show them this song first. The song is bluesy as hell, right down to Bowie’s 4 bar verses that somehow convey a huge depth of pain and sorrow in remarkably few lines.
- Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) – Bowie seems to have made a similar realization to Billy Corgan in the 90’s – jazz drummers are bad-asses, and will steal the song if you give them half a chance. Perhaps following a similar progression of ideas, this track bears surprising resemblance to Smashing Pumpkins’s glam metal, though Bowie’s vocals could hardly be more different.
- Girl Loves Me – In light of Bowie’s illness and treatment coinciding with the album’s creation, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” may be the most haunting lyric of 2016.
- Dollar Days – This is why track order is important. After the haunting emptiness of ‘Girl Loves Me’, the listener is left frayed and vulnerable, and Bowie swoops in with the familiar sound of ringing piano chords. The melody is melancholy but contemplative, a direct counterpart to the bleakness of the track prior. Bowie’s lyrics are beautiful, as he contemplates his own impending death and how to make the most of his final days, reflecting on his career and the impact he has made, or tried to make, as he laments “I’m trying to… I’m dying to”.
- I Can’t Give Everything Away – Bowie’s wave farewell. The most familiar sounding track on the album, even utilizing a harmonica theme from his past work. The song is almost coy; Bowie’s words,”I can’t give everything away”, have seemingly endless interpretations. Is he lamenting that he can’t give more music to the world? Is he teasing that Blackstar is often ambiguous because he wants to remain mysterious? Is he referring to hiding his illness from the public and recording the album in secret? Perhaps fittingly, we may never know with certainty. Rest in peace.
Overall: I’ll admit it; I was late to the party on this one, and not just because it came out long before I started writing reviews. At the time of Bowie’s death, I was only really familiar with his Ziggy Stardust work and his hits. It wasn’t until months later, after familiarizing myself adequately with his catalog, that I fully dove into this album. But you know what? It didn’t make this album any less shocking. Bowie hasn’t made an album like this in his career, but here, he succeeds gloriously. I was immediately struck with the ambition of the album’s sound and unusual song structures. However, it is not until today, as I wrote this review, that the lyrics really hit me. Bowie recorded while seeing the world from a vantage point that few artists ever have, perhaps none of Bowie’s caliber. The lyrics are at times obtuse and difficult to interpret, but Bowie conveys more through tone and melody than many artists could if they were to write a book. His verses are brief and often repetitive, but the lines he provides (especially the ones with more obvious interpretations) carry enormous weight. This album was Bowie’s finale; no one expected a bona fide legend to push themselves forward until mere days before their death just to finish one more album, but he did. I hope that he felt it was worth it, because I do.