Revisiting David Bowie's album Blackstar
Last Friday we published a track-by-track review of Bowie's final album, our reviewer takes another look now the world has changed
‘This record may be his last, or it may be far from it, but it would be a wonderful and still-essential way to bow out.’ That was the last sentence I wrote when I excitedly reviewed David Bowie’s new album Blackstar just a few days ago, and it was a throwaway one; ‘Sixty-nine isn’t so young,’ I thought at the last, ‘who’s to say whether he’ll get a crack at another?’ And we all know what happened next. For those of us who were privileged enough to listen to the record in the first three days of its release, it had two lives: one, as merely the latest stage in an advancing and always essential five-decade career; and two, as the considered, self-penned epitaph to one of the most remarkable lives of the last century, which Bowie had been working on for as long as he had been living with his cancer diagnosis.
As either, it remains the impressive, emotional piece of work I first thought it was, but there’s a different discussion to be had about its second life. I said the follow-up to 2013’s surprise first album in a decade The Next Day had ‘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.’
None of this has changed, but Bowie’s era is over now. My original track-by-track review is below, with further thoughts added.
Then: 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.
Now: The words ‘funereal, almost medicated…’ certainly strike the right note. Right away, almost every word hits home: “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.’ Is it an invitation to another to take his place, or Bowie aligning himself in direct succession to one of his own influences? As has been discovered since Bowie’s death, Elvis Presley once wrote an unreleased song called ‘Black Star’, a jauntily mournful piece whose lyrics were strangely prescient: ‘One fine day I'll see that black star / that black star over my shoulder / and when I see that old black star / I'll know my time has come... There's a lot of livin' I gotta do / give me time to make a few dreams come true.’ Here’s where it gets weird: Bowie and Presley both shared a birthday, the 8th of January, which was also the release date of Blackstar. Apparently – I’ll hold my hands up as having no clue how this works – the term ‘black star’ also holds some astrological significance to that date. You can tell Bowie really thought about this…
'‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore'
Then: ‘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.
Now: Not every track on the album reveals new meanings on re-listening, but might there be some connection between this piece and John Ford’s incest-heavy 17th century tragedy of (almost) the same name? Or is it a veiled rebuke to a former lover who ‘kept my cock’ and ‘stole my purse with rattling speed’? Even with illness lingering, there’s a dark sexuality to Bowie’s writing.
Then: 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.
Now: It’s hard to see this as anything but autobiography. ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen’ and ‘This way or no way / you know I’ll be free’ are lines which feel loaded with significance, and then there’s that title. In the Bible, Jesus raised Lazarus after four days; the stage play which Bowie titled in honour of this song and which is running in New York just now is just one way he will live on. The title also reminds of ‘Cold Lazarus’, the last of Dennis Potter’s final diptych of plays which aired in 1996, both written while Potter was dying of cancer (the other was Karaoke). In it, the head of Albert Finney’s long-dead but cryogenically frozen 20th century writer is used as a weapon against the American corporations which rule Britain and deem only synthesised, inauthentic experience legal. It’s a scenario which would have appealed to Bowie, we suspect.
'Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)'
Then: 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.
Now: “Sue, the clinic called / the x-ray’s fine…” Let the shudder pass and this seemingly character-driven narrative of a song reveals no more than before. Although the identity of Sue herself may come to vex future Bowieologists.
'Girl Loves Me'
Then: 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.
Now: When Bowie released a list of his favourite 100 books in 2013, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange was in sixth place. Those who have hurried to an online dictionary of the book’s fictional nadsat language, however, might be dismayed to hear that the lines of it he uses in the song aren’t a veiled discussion on mortality and his legacy. Witness: ‘You viddy at the cheena / choodesny with the red rot… Devotchka watch her garbles / spatchko at the rozz shop / split a ded from his deng deng’ translates as ‘You see the woman / wonderful with the red mouth… Girl watches testicles (?) / sleep at the police station / separate an old man from his money.’ The translation may be a little off, but it doesn’t tell us much. Although yes…‘where the fuck did Monday go?’ took on a whole new meaning as the first day of the working week was spent coming to terms with the news.
Then: 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.
Now: Oh man. Write those lyrics down and read them over. ‘If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / it’s nothing to me’; ‘I’m dying to / push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again / I’m trying to’; ‘Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you.’ And the drama in his voice… you might be tearing up around now.
'I Can’t Give Everything Away'
Then: 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.
Now: Indeed. There’s a key verse in there which seems to have Bowie summing up the purpose of his entire career, if you want to take it like that: ‘Seeing more and feeling less / saying no but meaning yes / this is all I ever meant.’ But really, now we’re at the end, the time for signs and clues is over. Listen to the purposeful sweep of the music and the charming, emotive quality of his voice. Bowie wasn’t a star because he always looked effortlessly good, or wrong-footed us with his style changes, or seemed to have a grand plan which moved beyond mortal understanding. At his best he simply made effortlessly beautiful music which moved the feet or the heart, and left you feeling changed for having heard it. This is definitely one of those songs.
Blackstar by David Bowie is out now on Columbia.