Monday, January 11, 2016

album review: 'blackstar' by david bowie

David Bowie.

That should be all I need to say for this introduction, but the reality is that Bowie has... was always been more complicated than the legendary image and stunning run of classic albums have indicated. One of the most fascinating creative geniuses to have ever worked in music - especially during his run in the 70s - when you have an artist that influential, that powerful, that genre-defying, it's hard to say any more beyond 'the music speaks for itself'... especially now.

But to be completely honest with you all, putting aside my knowledge of some of his best songs, I had never gone through Bowie's discography front to back before doing this review - certain albums, sure, but never from beginning to end. So before I sat down to listen to Blackstar, I went through every single David Bowie album, from the uneven self-titled curiosity in 1967 to his classic albums in the early 70s to the mid-to-late 70s stream of genre bending to his stabs in the mainstream throughout the 80s to mixed results... and it would only get worse from there. Yeah, the 90s and his brief period of activity in the beginning of the 2000s was not kind of Bowie - mostly good, but far from the heights he achieved with Station to Station, the Berlin Trilogy, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and my personal favourite Bowie record The Man Who Sold The World. Most of that is because I tend to prefer Bowie when he gets rougher and darker, and while I can definitely appreciate more pop-flavoured records like Let's Dance, I prefer the heavier stuff - one of the reasons I have more time for his hard rock side project Tin Machine than most do. As for his 90s work... look, where in the past he was the one who charted a unique path, his work in this decade almost seemed to cannibalize the electronic and industrial music of the time in order to wring out fresh inspiration, with hit-and-miss results. And while albums like Heathen and Reality showed him regain some creative form, I was satisfied with David Bowie gracefully stepping out of the spotlight, a varied career but with heights that by far overshadowed the lows...

So fast forward to 2013, and out of nowhere David Bowie released The Next Day, his first album of material in a decade - and not only did it feel creatively revitalized, it was Bowie taking his textbook self-awareness and focusing on his legacy, half out of the sheer provocation of rebirth and half to break free of the ossifying weight of his classics. Never had the spectre of death and endings hung quite so heavily over The Thin White Duke - not without reason, as we'd come to know - and yet he was going to go out swinging. It's not hyperbole to say that The Next Day was the best record he had made since the 80s, a shot of buzzing, excellently written momentum that managed to recapture the best of the ragged danger that had ran through his best work. And thus when I heard he was going to be following it with an album this year, this time tapping into more experimental jazz on what was heralded as one of his most experimental records to date... well, look, it's not like jazz is entirely unfamiliar territory, look at the title track from Aladdin Sane. In other words, you can bet I was going to review this - so what did Blackstar deliver?

I have to be honest, I've struggled a lot with this record - partially because it's David Bowie and I wanted to make sure I was giving it my fair consideration, but also because on the first two to three listens, I was underwhelmed. I'm not going to say this is a bad record by any stretch of the mind - it's definitely not, and I've warmed to it a fair bit after the dozen listens I gave it over the past few days, but it wasn't until a final few listens today that it truly snapped into focus, a record that when viewed in the context of its subtle influences and the passing of a legend rings as borderline prophetic.

So let's start by talking about Bowie himself... and honestly, if I'm going to have a criticism of this record, it's that his performance is uneven. Yes, I know why that was the case and that it does work at points in context with the lyrics and themes and his own physical condition, but he did write the vocal lines and there are points on the title track and especially 'Girl Loves Me' where the cracks and breaks are pretty audible. And yeah, they can't help but take away from a fragile, but otherwise pretty damn impressive and soulful performance, especially on the final two tracks of this album. 

And while I can appreciate the production doing whatever it can to help, this is where I have my second issue with this album. As I said before, my favourite Bowie records are the ones that rocked a little harder, and this album's choice to draw from the stripped back rhythms of Low and the spacier abstraction of Outside wouldn't be my favourite source of influences, especially considering how Tony Visconti's production seems to soften every rougher edge. I'll come back to this when I talk about lyrical themes, but for how bleak the atmosphere of this album is - ghostly, half-heard backing vocals, sparse percussion, heavenly swells of strings, jittery flutes, liquid yet rigid basswork, all against a cushion of hazy synth and a saxophone that seems to spasm and leap across the mix with reckless abandon - I find myself wishing there was a hint more of a bite to it, especially when those more ragged guitar lines sneak in. Granted, it's damn impressive that Bowie can still compose music that runs the line between unsettling and yet strangely approachable without needing to rely on darker textures, but I can't help but wonder what might have been. That's not to take away from the compositions themselves, which have so many beautiful subtleties that add a ton to the mix: that little six-or-seven note gleaming synth piece that accents 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore'; the darker bass work on 'Lazarus' which features a fantastic fuzzed out riff that the horns then mirror; the industrial touches that intensify the ragged panic of 'Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)'; the phenomenal acoustic texture on 'Dollar Days' that features some gorgeous backing piano and that great subtle guitar cutting through the outro; and finally, on a cloud of effervescent keys, brittle hi-hats, and the horns that accentuated eerieness before merging with the guitars to pull him home...

And this is where any hope of me being remotely objective in this criticism collapses because we need to talk about lyrics and themes, and the hardest questions to grapple with: does David Bowie's passing lend this album weight and power that it otherwise would not have had it not been released just days before his death? Because let's be honest: every artist has considered what they'd want their swan song project to be, Bowie more than most - he's been privately fighting cancer for the past year and a half, he knew it was coming. And this is where consideration of his influences snaps into focus. Musically, you can hear the Boards of Canada influence, but reportedly Bowie drew more inspiration from two hip-hop acts, the first being Kendrick. And that makes sense, especially when you consider To Pimp A Butterfly - internal struggles with fame, being held up as a savior but losing contact with the world beneath him. Hell, he even describes himself as a 'blackstar', the antithesis to the modern disposable icon that isn't shy about piling on the antichrist imagery around him. And that's before we get to 'Lazarus' which makes the prophetic distance from his audience all the more stark - not shying away from the corruptive force of cancer, he almost seems to relish the potential release of death, no longer the dead man walking. And that nihilism has a direct parallel to the other major influence on this album: Death Grips. Now at first glimpse the influence is barely evident - it's not like Bowie's voice would even be capable of howling like MC Ride's - but there's a certain self-flagellating savagery that wouldn't be out of place on Jenny Death.

But of course, since it's Bowie, his brand of savagery has a certain refined transgression to it, the most obvious case coming in the usage of Nadsat and Polari - slang languages derived from A Clockwork Orange and the 70s gay nightclub scene respectively - on 'Girl Loves Me', where he comments on a woman who might bring great pleasures but damnation along the way, which is previous echoed in the garish stories of 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore' and 'Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)', two songs that previously landed on a compilation Nothing Has Changed and are inspired by the titular John Ford play, which is loaded with its own brand of transgression in incest, lies, betrayal and murder. It were these moments that almost made me think that Bowie was perhaps indulging a bit of Nick Cave-esque graphic content, but I'd argue it runs deeper. Given Bowie's penchant for gender bending, perhaps he himself was the whore in question to an audience that discarded the deeper connection deep down they craved, which gets even more twisted on the near-direct retelling on 'Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)', where Bowie writes from the perspective of the two men wooing this girl - one being her brother and main lover who kills her in the end. And I wouldn't say these moments demonize sex - hell, in lines on 'Dollar Days' where he describes it as 'survival' seems like those fleshy pursuits are one of the elements keeping him most alive, which is another Death Grips parallel as he continues to spit in the face of an establishment and legacy even as life slips away. And then there's the heartbreaking final track - even as he sees death's long road as his feet, he tries to refine his message down to a final stanza: 'Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / That is all I ever meant / That's the message that I sent'. Detach to find transcendence yet never giving up the feelings that you dare not speak... with this album finding its greatest humanity in putting forth the rawest of it all before the end... and even then, he can't give everything away. This moment takes Bowie's hyper-awareness surrounding his legacy and his audience and gives them one last farewell - because as the harmonica fragments that pepper the song signify, he's got a career in a new town now.

But now we have to address that impossible question: how much of this album's resonance comes with knowing that it was written as David Bowie's final piece, defining his exit as only he could, which will always leave the lyric as 'where the fuck did Monday go' as eerily prophetic? Outside of the context of his death, does Blackstar work? So let me pose a different question: could a work like this even exist without the unique context and author that created it? In principle, perhaps, but Bowie understood that his authorial presence rings as unique within the history of music - the blessing and curse that it was, as the title track emphasizes - and his passing doesn't change the meaning of his music so much as it does amplify its emotional resonance - it hits that much harder. And as a critic admitting that doesn't invalidate the past few minutes - we're only human in experiencing art, be you a critic or a fan, and to ignore that human context devalues the raw humanity behind the most visceral moments of this album as a whole. And that being said, I will not say Blackstar is my favourite David Bowie record - The Man Who Sold The World and most of his 70s output are downright classics - but I'm not going to deny it's an incredibly well-written piece and haunting piece of work that comes highly recommended, with a strong 8/10. I'm not going to say this album is the most accessible or easy work to delve into David Bowie - I suspect a lot of its resonance comes with a broader familiarity of his albums - but for an artist to define his swan song before transcending us all... man, what a way to go.

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