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David Bowie Avoids Complacency, Continues to Push Boundaries on Bizarre '★' ('Blackstar')

Music ReviewSean McHughComment
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The concept of fluidity is not necessarily a notion an artist would aim to procure, much less at the risk of their own legacy. However, if there ever was an artist so poised, so precise, and so deft to continually morph and adapt with a sort of genre androgyny, it would certainly be David Bowie. Each release throughout Ziggy Stardust’s career is uniformly unique - each record adopting aspects of various influences throughout, most of which are equally ambitious and ambiguous, but always maintaining Bowie’s mystical hallmarks. 

Bowie’s newest addition to his compendium is  (stylized, but technically Blackstar, which is what the writer shall reference for the rest of the article), an ambitious collection of jazz leaning tracks that continue Bowie’s half century long career of genre fluidity that continues his status as one of the true icons of rock music, not necessarily for a “classic” rock sound, but rather the intrepidity to stretch the confines and concepts that rock music once resided within. On Blackstar, Bowie continues to explore new sonic landscapes, but this time, rather than challenging conceptions of rock, Bowie virtually spurns what we know of rock music altogether.

Released three years after 2013’s The Next Day, which followed an unsettlingly long period of Bowie-less music, Blackstar enlists New York jazz musician Donny McCaslin and his group of acclaimed players (Ben Monder, Jason Linder, Tim Lefebvre, and Mark Guiliana) to create one of the most unnerving Bowie albums to date. Blackstar’s incorporation of dark jazz flair with undertones of death, savagery, and detachment is more defined than past efforts.

Bowie being who he is, a number of devout fans have spent considerable time trying to uncover the cryptic themes within the tracks, with most being no closer to meaning than before, but others are quite apparent and only further confused by those closest to Bowie.

The title track, “Blackstar” seems like a direct reference to the rise of ISIS and is supported by Donny McCaslin, with the continual allusion to a “solitary candle.” Such a subject matter would not be out of the realm of possibility for Bowie, who has seemed to have a morbid fascination with despicable characters, a la Big Brother, President Joe and his murderous Saviour Machine, and Thomas Newton on previous projects. Another interesting aspect of “Blackstar” is track’s run time, which stands at nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds; it had been even longer, but when Bowie and his cohorts found out that iTunes did not place songs longer than ten minutes up for individual sale, they shaved time with two seconds to spare.

Despite Blackstar’s considerably darker themes, it also shares an air of more lyrical playfulness from Bowie. Second track, “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” in name alone is playful and about as “out there” as any in recent memory. The track opens with a heavy drum and bass lead and horns whirling every which way, before Bowie opens with the delightful “Man, she punched me like a dude / Hold your mad hands / I cried,” setting a disparate scene for Bowie’s narrative. The track moves at a rattling pace, leaving an unstable scene of uncertainty whether or not the narrator had been robbed by the titular “whore” or not. Bowie certainly spares every outside detail in order to enhance the strange nature of the song.

Lazarus” is the second Blackstar single, as well as the eponymous title of Bowie’s recent Off-Broadway hit, starring Michael C. Hall of Dexter television fame. “Lazarus” unsettles throughout, never quite reaching a point of comfort for the listener or the track’s protagonist, who had experienced ascension into “king-like” living in New York, but ultimately yearns for freedom from the confines of the life being presently led. The track was performed by Michael C. Hall on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in which Hall sang Bowie’s lyrics “nothing left to lose,” which undoubtedly doubled the meaning, with Bowie’s notable absence and acknowledgement that being a 69 year old pop-icon, there was hardly any way his legacy could be sullied.

Overall, Blackstar is one of Bowie’s most audacious of undertakings, an effort that could potentially be with great consequence, but because of such risks being as they are; Bowie only elevates and exceeds expectation to meet the task at hand. But then again, anyone ever really doubted any aspect of Bowie’s work? “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” is a haunting admission that Bowie is aware that his time is reaching an end, and rather than being a single voice from one point in time, he has become a voice that spans multiple generations. Bowie is aware of his deity status in the world of music, and no matter what new direction he takes his music, the masses will not doubt it. He's virtually untouchable, unassailable entity, but not above admitting imperfection in being so.