Track-by-track review of Blackstar by David Bowie
- David Pollock
- 8 January 2016
A one-off comeback becomes another prime Bowie era to rank alongside those of Ziggy Stardust, the Berlin years and ‘Let’s Dance’
Following his surprise return with 2013’s first album in a decade The Next Day, it’s at the very least numerically satisfying that David Bowie has followed it up by reaching his 25th studio album, released on his 69th birthday.
Audaciously titled after the one-star reviews it’s never going to see (the actual title is a black star icon), Blackstar at first has the air of a semi-compilation: ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ was first featured on his 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed; ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ was its B-side when released as a single; the title track appeared last year as the score to the television series The Last Panthers. But it’s an album which holds together wonderfully, fusing a large amount of resonant, Tony Visconti-produced, saxophone-led jazz with Bowie’s teasing blend of yearning humanity and reclusive unknowability. With this, a one-off comeback becomes another prime Bowie era to rank alongside those of Ziggy Stardust, the Berlin years and ‘Let’s Dance’.
In the olden days they would have called this the lead single, and the aim would have been to get it as high up the charts as possible. Yet Bowie gets the new reality better than many artists half his age, hence these near ten minutes of freak-out, uncommercial viral weirdness he used to trail the record. ‘In the villa of all men / stands a solitary candle / at the centre of it all,’ he intones with a funereal, almost medicated chant, the patter of jazz drums, a chill keyboard line and a dreamy saxophone settling around him. The music mutates into something softer and more blissful midway through, with Bowie’s voice taking on more human tones and that sax recalling the Ziggy Stardust era, before going under again. The soundtrack to the Samantha-Morton-starring crime drama The Last Panthers, it’s an effortless and atmospherically nocturnal piece of score work.
'‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore'
‘Man, she punched me like a dude,’ gasps Bowie, setting the scene for an oblique, John Ford-referencing tale of passionate but tempestuous sexual relations. The music drives on through a whipcrack drum beat and a nervily modulating synth line, ‘ooh-aah’ing vocal harmonies riding over the top. Lyrically it gives little away – aside from the novelty of Bowie referring to ‘my cock’, surely a first – but the collision of lust and uncertainty is all there in the allusions to war and his blend of reserved gasping and crystalline choirboy falsetto.
The expressive saxophone of player Donny McCaslin is given plenty of rein on this record, and it’s one of the key features here alongside a clanging, moody guitar line which reminds of dead industry and empty, booze-veiled city streets at night. It’s a tense, slow-burn epic, fusing in its lyric a sense of his own newly-revived iconic status (‘by the time I finally got to New York / I was living like a king’) and a rich, painful sense of gutter-staring-at-the-stars fatalism (‘look up here man, I’m in danger / I’ve got nothing left to lose’). Autobiography or fiction, the mood hangs on a fraying thread over the short gap between top and bottom.
'Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)'
Retooled from its previously-released format into a dark noir mystery with a hammering, live-played drum‘n’bass rhythm on a dense collage of guitar and woodwind, ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ is an urgent plea to the unknowable title character by the not altogether in control narrator. She wants ‘Sue the virgin’ on her gravestone but she has a son, a weirdly playful biblical reference, and at the end she leaves this yearning, paranoid mess for another man. The mood is tense, almost Lynchian.
'Girl Loves Me'
On a record so in control of its own aesthetic and in sync with its creator’s cruise liner-sized force of personality, this lovely, somnambulant evocation of weary bliss counts as one of the less notable tracks, musically. A slowly-striding beat and electronically-syncopated drums which recall DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing surge delicately, but it’s the quotable lyrical playfulness which provides the most pleasure. Singing some lines in A Clockwork Orange’s nadsat language, Bowie yelps ‘where the fuck did Monday go?’ like a man suddenly awakened on a bus many miles past his stop, and issues another lyrical first with ‘who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?’ Both lines and he are perfectly matched, somehow.
As the album enters its final stretch, there’s a sense of relaxation from Bowie. ‘Dollar Days’ is almost pastoral, a wash of piano, strings and – yes – saxophone, in which he reminisces over ‘English evergreens’ and a former love (“don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you / I’m trying to”). Despite the epic scope of the song, it’s a piece of relative warmth and humanity in the face of the part-playing control and reserve found from Bowie elsewhere.
'I Can’t Give Everything Away'
Continuing in the same vein as ‘Dollar Days’, there’s more of a sense of relative emotional exposure from Bowie here. The music is bright, and based around upbeat keyboards and a bit of harmonica alongside the sax. Mostly repeating the title line with a tone of impassioned conflict to its lullaby croon, Bowie’s voice sounds most connected to that of his youth; in this case the alluring softness of ‘China Girl’ or ‘Absolute Beginners’. The words are also a reference to that sense of disguised, stand-offish reserve which his best work bears, and this record certainly falls into that category. Blackstar may be his last, or it may be far from it, but it would be a wonderful and still-essential way to bow out.
Blackstar by David Bowie is out now on Columbia.