Words By: Gerrod Harris
Release Date: January 8th, 2016, via ISO Records
Happy Birthday to David Bowie! To celebrate his 69th, the superstar released his newest album, Blackstar, an equally daring and experimental record in which Bowie indulges into influences stretching into the realms of hip-hop, jazz, and 1950’s crooners.
“Blackstar”: The opening track is a masterpiece all on its own. While also doubling as the albums lead single, Bowie makes a bold statement with the song’s 9 minutes and 58 seconds length. This, in itself, is a symbol of rejection to the music industry; Bowie knows this won’t be played on radio purely due to it’s lengthy run time, and in the industries eyes, an album without a radio friendly single is not worth promoting. But it’s David Bowie, and he doesn’t need the promotion of a single which will take away from his artistic statement. The actual song is absolutely wonderful; from the spaciousness of the first half, the squeaks and darkness of the alto sax, the busyness and complexity of the drums, the layered harmonies, and the transition into a far simpler and upbeat second half, “Blackstar” proves to be nothing short of jaw dropping.
“‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”: The tone, straightforwardness, and bouncing quality of the drums give this song a distinct feel. On the surface, “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” may seem like the song with the least going on in it across the record, but upon a closer listen to, a number of quieter, underneath the surface elements emerge, giving a new depth to the song. My favorite is the polyrhythmic aspect often found quietly on the piano, playing off of the much more powerful saxophone. The background vocal harmonies, while simple, also add a very full quality to the song, and in their smooth nature, contradict with the often rougher texture of Bowies lead melody.
“Lazarus”: “Lazarus” is yet another interesting song, one of the only on Blackstar which is more rooted in Bowie’s classic work. This one, considering how minimal and spacious it is, has an infectious groove to it. The sparseness in the horn section and guitars gives the song a very open feel, allowing for Bowie to deliver a number of excellent melodies. “Lazarus” is written in a minor key for a majority of the song, giving it a very rich and dark tone, but a shift to a major key makes a very refreshing twist for a very diverse song.
“Sue (Or In A Season In Crime)”: Originally released as a Frank Sinatra inspired on Bowie’s 2014 greatest hits compilation, Nothing Has Changed, “Sue (Or In A Season In Crime)” takes a funkier form. Driven by drum n’bass styled drums and a crisp guitar, the song flies by at a blisteringly fast pace. Quite contrasting to the complexity and briskness found in the instrumental parts, Bowie elongates nearly every word, stretching them out to give his vocals a slower quality, while not actually falling out of time, which gives the song a unique push and pull feel.
“Girl Loves Me”: The phrasing used in the chorus, when combined with the flavour of the drums makes for a very apparent influence from hip-hop. Leading up to the release of Blackstar, Bowie specifically stated he loved Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. While heard throughout the album, the inspiration from Lamar is most clear on this track, despite the fact that Bowie does not rap once.
“Dollar Days”: This feels like a theme song for an espionage film. Bowie needs to write a song for the next James Bond movie, and after listening to “Dollar Days”, I’m sure most would agree. Starting with a great piano line, a minimal and clean electric guitar, and a saxophone, the ballad grows as Bowie comes in with a strumming acoustic guitar and his incredibly smooth voice. Following a beautifully performed solo on the sax, the song continues to develop with a number of small elements; a more complex piano, strings, and electric guitar, piling on top of each other, creating a swelling feeling which leads the song to a close.
“I Can’t Give Everything Away”: The closing track truly is the sum of all of Blackstar’s parts. Between the slightly swung hip-hop groove on the drums, to the jazz scales and technique found in the saxophone and guitar solos, to Bowie’s crooning vocal work, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” samples from three very distinct pallets and comes out sounding amazing. I don’t think anyone else could create such a perfect fusion of these elements, but Bowie seems to do it with such ease.
It goes without saying that at this point, David Bowie is beyond the point of seeking a million dollar check or an identity of an icon. Rather on Blackstar, as he often has been known to do, Bowie is making art for art’s sake. A phenomenal musical experience, Blackstar is a must hear, and will likely be one of the best albums of 2016. Between his classic voice to the unique fusion of musical genres, Bowie has far surpassed the artsy-fartsy air of most abstract and experimental music by giving it catchy melodies, and a strong sense of structure, which ultimately gives his experimental adventure something his fans will not only understand, but will love. What stands out most to me would be the drumming of Mark Guiliana, whose work is both incredibly groovy and technical, but his drums are a key element to each song as they give each song such a distinct flavour. Whether it be drum n’bass, hip-hop, swung, or a softer easy listening vibe Bowie is able to soar above the music and continues to demonstrate not just what an excellent singer he is, but also how much of a compositional genius he is. In short, Blackstar is unmistakably David Bowie; a truly perfect masterpiece which straddles both the sonic textures of today, as well of a much more classic era.
The above section was my review, written immediately after listening to Blackstar, before Bowie had passed away. I’m glad I chose to listen to it while he was still with us. David Bowie passed away on January 10th, 2016, two days following the release of Blackstar after an 18 month long battle with cancer. The statement released on his Facebook page reads “January 10 2016 – David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer. While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.” Tony Visconti, the producer behind Blackstar, stated that Bowie had planned to release the album around the expected time of his death, further elaborating by saying “he always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift”.
It now seems best to not only reflect on the quality of Blackstar not only as an individual album-as I did previously-but as a bookend for the magnificent career of an icon who never ceased to amaze. It is not far of a stretch to name Bowie the grandfather of alternative rock; from the very beginning of his career he had added an innovative twist to every genre he touched upon. From acoustic folk, glam, the blues, pop, rock, R&B, new wave, funk, electronic, and beyond, Bowie refused to stay within the restrictive confines of these genres and frequently twisted and blurred the lines between each one. Between the caliber of his music and the rebellious nature in which he acted-often in defiance not only the music industry but also towards various social norms-he was a rockstar in every sense of the word. Known mostly for his unique voice, Bowie was also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, playing the guitar, alto and tenor saxophone, piano, harmonica, violin, and cello. His song writing style was truly original; Bowie was no stranger to the use of various instrumentation and arrangements that most involved in the rock genre would shy away from.
Personally, I can remember my mum introducing me to David Bowie when I was very young. Being obsessed with Star Wars, I was immediately drawn to Bowie for his space age lyrics. Space, aliens, and guitars, what more could a kid want? As I became a musician, Bowie’s presence in my life grew to become one of my favorite artists and one of my greatest sources of inspiration. His song writing abilities were-and likely will continue to be-unparalleled. From his greatest hits- “Space Oddity”, “Suffragette City”, “Fame”, “Let’s Dance”, “I’m Afraid Of Americans”, “The Jean Genie” and “Diamond Dogs”, to name a small few- to a large amount of deep tracks- twenty-seven albums worth- Bowie continued to strive to be a cut above what was expected and often was more than often able to rise to a higher level, transitioning rock into a true form of art.
Blackstar, in this context, is a fitting end to such a diverse career. The use of hip-hop, jazz, and 1950’s R&B truly was as organic as it was creative, and it certainly did not falter to deliver seven songs which do not take away from his already glowing legacy, but rather added a new, rich dimension, making Blackstar an album which, like most of his work, took him to yet another level of artistry. I could probably write a book on his significance both musically and as a reflection of culture, but I am currently at a loss for words, so this will have to do. Rest easy David Bowie; a man eternally linked to his artistry, while shrouded in mystery. Thank you for the music and the immeasurable inspiration, you beautifully brilliant man.
2: ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore
4: Sue (Or In A Season In Crime)
5: Girl Loves Me
6: Dollar Days
7: I Can’t Give Everything Away