Blackstar is the follow-up to Bowie’s 2013 album, The Next Day, an album that ended a ten-year studio album silence for Bowie as he came back with a sound that emulated his older work but with a heightened sense of self-awareness, maybe to the point where it was a little tongue-in-cheek. And on this project, Bowie seems just as aware and conscious of his musical past and relevance but not in a way where it feels like he’s trying to redo anything blatantly, more in that he’s trying to plow ahead into some real experimental and left-field territory that is definitely going to challenge listeners and hardcore fans.
Now this record is a very different project for Bowie mostly because he was in a different place as he was recording and writing it, and that place is the threshold to death. A lot of artists, no matter what the medium, explore the concept of death. It’s a pretty universal theme, a theme that audiences are interested in as well since it’s also going to be a part of their experience in life, or has been via the deaths of people around them. But I can’t think of another instance where it’s been so clear that an artist was exploring this theme face-to-face, literally like head-on because David Bowie had a pretty intense battle with cancer going for 18 months prior to January 2016. It’s almost like his job was done here, and now that his swan song had been released, it was time for him to move beyond. The lyrics and the music videos attached to these songs turned Bowie’s oncoming death into an art project, and I don’t mean in such a way where it cheapens his death. As a listener, you can, in a strange way, touch death vicariously through the music of this record. Tracks like
Lazarus, Blackstar, and I Can’t Give Everything Away alone, these three tracks alone, throw a heap of morbid and occult imagery into the lap of the listener.
But moving away from the context a bit and talking about what’s going on with this record, musically speaking, before the release of this record, Bowie had cited Death Grips and Kendrick Lamar as influences for his music on this record, and I think those influences do show up when listening to Blackstar, but in a very subtle way. In the instrumentals, Bowie similarly creates a very lively organic human feel out of what sounds like guitars, drums, bass packed into very digital boundaries, and within these boundaries, Bowie creates beauty but also very intense cacophony, too. Just look at the song Blackstar, to which though it is very clearly a rock track at its core, there are a lot of synthetic elements. The weird vocal manipulations on Bowie’s voice that remind me quite a bit of Fever Ray. The bass instrumentation a lot of the time feels kind of simple, but it’s heightened by some great string arrangements and horns, which appear throughout this record. The first half of this track is very unsettling. It’s eerie and challenging, and more impatient music listeners might be kind of waiting for when the track is actually going to get started. However, in the second half, Bowie kind of transitions into something more within his wheelhouse, something with more of a glam style swagger to it but still remains the weird unsettling characteristics that were there on the first half of the track. It’s a really great two-part song that weaves together all these really intricate flavors and lyrical themes very well.
And if there’s another thing that strikes me in terms of the differences between Blackstar record and The Next Day, it’s that he seems to be embracing the weariness of his voice on here in a very big way like with the crack yelped vocals on Girl Loves Me, or on the song ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore where we have these shaky singing vocals on the verses and these very intense manic shouts in the second half of the track, as the instrumentation intensifies the bass and the drums go way harder, and that’s topped with these noisy horns wailing away in the left and right channels. And the lyrics take a vulgar turn which seemed similar to me in tone to what Lou Reed was doing on that Metallica collaboration Lulu, and before you groan that comparison, Bowie actually was noted to have enjoyed that record.
And it kind of reminds me of Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch, too, with how freakish and vulgar the lyrics get, especially on the song Sue where Bowie’s singing turns similarly ghoulish over a little gnarly bass and guitar riff and drum beat, which sounds like it could have come off of Swans’ To Be Kind. Sue really sounds like a fusion of Bish Bosch and To Be Kind, but I mean that in the best way possible. And James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem actually has drum credits on this track and the song Girl Loves Me, too. It’s easy to see that Bowie was going for something really visceral and propulsive when it came to the bass and the drums on this LP, given the personnel. And Bowie himself is no stranger to viscera and linear grooves and repetition. Just look at a lot of his art-rock records from the past like Station to Station and Heroes and Low. So in a way on this record, Bowie is kind of returning to his roots but in the most freakish way possible. Bowie’s glam tendencies do show up on this record though but more on the ballads of the LP like on Lazarus and Dollar Days and the closing track. And these songs make for a very beautiful contrast to the harder and more aggressive cuts on the LP.
The music on this thing is great for the most part. If there are any complaints that I have, it’s that sometimes the instrumentation is a little too sanitary, clean, kind of feels like in the digital space where it exists, it doesn’t kind of bleed together in the way that live instrumentation would. So I think there’s a bit of an organic feel that’s kind of lost on some of the more aggressive tracks. And also the weeping harmonica and very sugary synthesizers on the closing track do feel sort of dated.
But it’s really the lyrics on this record where this project kind of comes to life for me, or comes to death, and turns super surreal, like on Blackstar which when I first heard, I thought it was some kind of a cult analyzation of Bowie’s popularity, fame, and relevance, but now given his passing and all of the other themes of death that run throughout all these other songs which are way more obvious in the context of the rest of the record, it seems like Bowie is talking about being a black star in the sense that he is no longer a star that is light or has light. The star is blackened. It’s gone dark, and light being life itself.
And another thing that kind of struck me when I thought about the music video is that there are moments where an astronaut suit broken with a skeleton side is kind of portrayed. I’m thinking that’s got to be Major Tom, and given the song Space Oddity, it’s like a mission that Major Tom was going on. It was like a suicide mission, or he was just going into the great unknown, sort of like how Bowie is on this record over here, which is really intense to think about. I don’t think Bowie would have self-referenced so blatantly if weren’t for a purpose, and now that purpose seems super clear.
Then there’s the song Lazarus which if you know the story of Lazarus: he died and came back to life via a miracle four days later, and now we have Bowie on the song singing in a way where the lyrics are literally a transmission from beyond the grave, and he’s making observations about how he’s up in heaven and now everybody sort of knows him, which sure given his iconic status isn’t really that bold of a prediction that people would be talking about him in reaction to his death, but still, it’s like too real to hear him singing about it.
And in the greatest lyrical coincidence on the entire record with the track Girl Loves Me, we have Bowie singing “Where the fuck did Monday go”, and with the fact that Bowie died on Sunday, it’s like he knew he wouldn’t even make it to the Monday. But deeper into the lyrics, it’s like I’m listening to the deterioration of Bowie’s mental and physical being on this track. It seems like he is unfamiliar and scared, or freaked out, or confused by his surroundings, or what he sees. He’s losing time; he’s losing his sensibilities and his sanity.
And the song Dollar Days similarly feels like a descent into death as well, especially as Bowie is quite literally singing on this track “I’m dying, too”. And the closer really does sound like a final goodbye surely without a doubt. It’s just really crazy to think of, and there are moments in the lyrics here where I feel like I’m listening to Bowie reaching that point where he can’t give anymore, can’t do anymore, where he’s been fully drained, or maybe this song in a way is about parting with his earthly possessions, earthly relevance and fame because he can’t take them with him.
This is a really strange music listening experience and a deeply moving one as well. I was getting choked up listening to the record and thinking back to that Major Tom reference in the music video. And just the fact that Bowie is literally facing death on this record and quite bravely exploring it, and it seemed like he made his life all about music, and now in his final moments, he decided that he wanted to spend his last bit of life sort of doing exactly what his life was about and reflecting on where his life was about to go.
This is a great record, and I think it’s really interesting that Bowie provided a series of songs that it’s really no BS; there’s not really a low point on this album. It’s almost an hour long, and it seems like every moment is just as essential to the next. It all plays into this very jaw-dropping awe-inspiring look at the end of the life of an artist who’s actually creating the music here. It’s a very surreal experience, and the music would have been great even if Bowie lived on for five more years because it explores these themes so incredibly well and does it with some interesting instrumentation, great sax solos, cool vocal performances that play to the strengths of Bowie’s voice at this point in his life, the passion, the emotion, the weariness. I’m feeling alight this is a satisfying ending chapter to a great music career.
See also: Life on Mars, David Bowie