It’s amazing how outside factors can affect the qualities of the music on an album and change its focus. Any number of stimuli could play an active role in the change – the medium through which the music is presented (be it vinyl record, compact disc, cassette or mp3 – whatever), the players who contributed to the recording or even unforeseen events which occurred completely outside of the recording. At a certain point, all of those things become absorbed into the presentation of the album and may lead listeners to conclusions which weren’t in any way anticipated, but still seem as though the roles they play are obvious and important, after the fact. A great example of the way music may be interpreted differently under the influence of different stimuli can be found on David Bowie’s twenty-fifth (and final – as it would turn out) album, simply entitled Blackstar. Here, with just seven songs within which to work, David Bowie created a dramatic and theatrical masterwork which features a tremendous number of musical turns and movements to absorb, ideas to indulge and questions for listeners to ponder as they also attempt to deduce why everything about the album was composed, conducted and presented the way it is. The album is a mine of possibility and, because the singer has now departed, no definitive answers can ever be known – but Black Star remains fascinating instead of frustrating in spite of that fact.
Listening back now, it’s obvious that the two sides of Blackstar‘s vinyl release have been meticulously divided into two emotional movements. The first is death, departure, introspection and mourning; after the methodical and mournful sounds which open both the album’s title track and A-side have sufficiently built behind him, David Bowie simply begins to murmur introspectively and sets a new stage in so doing. The lines “In the Villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen/ Stands a solitary candle/ In The center of it all, in the center of it all/ Your eyes….” It’s a chilling thing, but also a captivating one – after hearing those words, listeners will be unable to pull themselves away from the song, and the cold, shockingly clean and tidy sounds of humming organs, woodwinds and bass will just wash over them as Mark Guiliana’s brushed drums push them through. This is about as cheerless as Bowie has ever really allowed himself to be on any recording and it really is hypnotizing; it captivates listeners in a manner which makes it difficult to realize that the song does break into a sleazy sort of R&B rhythm which helps it move along, but it never lasts and the pall always retakes the foreground before long.
The darkness first set forth by Blackstar‘s title track continues as “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” earnestly follows it with a slightly more brisk tempo (unlike the demo mix of the song which can be found on Bowie’s Record Store Day 2014-issued 10” single), but there is an undeniable shift in the energy behind the album’s movement. Here, the sense of general danger and hazard which originally shaped the song on that 2014 single has been replaced with an undeniable sense of worry and dread; the singer’s voice almost seems to whimper as a much smoother, more produced beat rumbles beneath it, and one gets the sense (or is given it) that the singer isn’t in complete control of how the song is playing now, more so than was the case regarding the sputtering, gun-firing two-year-old original. It is for that reason the worry increases here.
The darkness and danger which touches different points of both “blackstar” and “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” comes clashing together and makes sure to slow right down so listeners can’t miss or ignore it through “Lazarus,” the third and final track on Blackstar‘s A-side. The song is the perfect way to end the side and sum up the movement of it; the saxophone sounds perfectly despondent and gently ushers in a sense that something is coming to an end along (at first, it could have been seen as a self-aware end of the side when the record first came out but, just days after the album was released, the first lyrics of the song, “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama that can’t be stolen/ Everybody knows me now” took on a very different connotation), a vision further asserted by the fairly spare and disconnected guitar riff that punctuates them. When the aural sun does break through the mix with visions of New York and happier times accompanying, Bowie sounds as though he’s nearly in tears as he delivers the words “By the time I got to New York/ I was living like a king/ There I used up all my money/ I was looking for your ass.”
It was hard to hear that right after the album was released because it felt so direct. Less than a week later, it would be hard to hear for a whole different reason and, on vinyl, that such sentiments, combined with the funerary vibe and the fact that “Lazarus” is the final song on the A-side of Blackstar feels shockingly poignant; forget about dramatic, forget about heavy, forget about trying to get a sounding of its depth – there are no words which easily or conveniently qualify the sensation that “Lazarus” instills. Suffice it to say that it’s awesome and that it’s situated in a position which requires action from listeners if they want more (they must lift the needle to either flip the LP or begin it again if they want more) is just perfect.
The way the B-side of Blackstar is laid out instills the notion that it is a separate experience from the album’s A-side. First, “Sue” erupts with new nervous energy (fresh both from the expended A-side as well as the energy which powered the song previously on Bowie’s RSD 2014 single – where the song also appeared) and starts fresh, marvellously. Here, the song sounds positively urbane as it rushes along to announce “Sue! I got the job” before offering reassurances that whatever strife was surrounding the characters prior to the song’s beginning has either been resolved or is really of little consequence in the grand scheme of this narrative. After the events which would follow the album’s release, it’s hard not to feel as though the assurances offered here were more autobiographical than story-serving, but the whole thing powers through grandly regardless, and listeners will find they feel as renewed as the music does after the way Blackstar‘s A-side ended; the way it lines up on vinyl had to have been intentional. That energy and the excitement in the monologue (if not the dramatic lede) bleed over into “Girl Loves Me” easily as “Sue” ends, but it also offers ample opportunity for listeners to settle in with it. Here, the yelp in Bowie’s melody proves to be infectious as the singer burbles through lines like “Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say/ Party up moodge, ninety vellocet round on Tuesday/ Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday/ Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday” which sound as though they’re either placeholder lines inserted in a demo or were designed to echo A Clockwork Orange. The vibe and style feels delightful and escapist at first, but the whole thing crashes down into the oppressively real as the drums cement the song’s meter and the singer’s demeanor changes as he demands “Where the fuck did Monday go?/ I’m go to this Giggenbach show/ I’m sailin’ in the chestnut tree/ Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?” Phrases like ‘shocking shift’ and ‘character departure’ don’t even begin to do the way this song ensnares listeners’ attention justice.
Still reeling from “Girl Loves Me,” listeners will find a welcome respite in the more emotionally even tone of “Dollar Days,” even if there’s no denying that the song is pretty dour. There, Bowie makes the most of a minor key to instill a new sense of loss (or opportunities missed, as lines like “Cash girls suffer me, I’ve got no enemies/ I’m walking down/ It’s nothing to me/ It’s nothing to see” imply) which gets resolved in the chorus (“I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain/ And fool them all again and again/ I’m trying to”) with a couple of major chords, but proves inconsequential as the song dives into new senses of trepidation for each verse. In the end, the song leaves a sense of disillusionment in its wake but, in spite of that (and also because fans know that all the things David Bowie does in an album’s run-time are done for a reason), they’ll press on into “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” tantalized by the song’s title.
…And listeners find at least a half-promise coupled with David Bowie finally leveling with them in “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” The first confessions (coupled with a couple of dramatic images) arrive just as the song begins; with the benefit of hindsight, there’s no question that David Bowie is bidding his fans farewell as he begins with the words, “I know something is very wrong/ The pulse returns to the prodigal son/ The blackout hearts, the flowered news/ with skull designs upon my shoes,” but refuses to be blunt or artless about it as he promises “I can’t give everything away” repeatedly in lieu of a chorus. As any longtime fan could tell you, this is as close to being perfectly direct as David Bowie has ever come but, by the same token, no one could possibly know that without the benefit of hindsight; without that, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” just plays like a song which was designed to be the final one on an album and offer closure on a dramatic presentation, which Bowie had already done twenty-four times before the release of Blackstar. In that way, it just feels right.
Now, with all of the dramatic movements made through the running ofBlackstar dissected here, of course readers and critics could say that the possibility of anyone being surprised that David Bowie died shortly after the album’s release is nil. Even so though, I contend that while David Bowie may have been pointing in that direction through these seven songs, the artist’s greatest accomplishment on his twenty-fifth album is that he was able to encapsulate his own life in the exact same manner as he did to the characters he created and found fame with. In the end, he laid himself gently to rest alongside Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and his other characters. Some critics might not like that idea but, for some of us, it will inspire a little nostalgic and romantic smile; the music on Blackstar is the only satisfying way Bowie could have brought his story to an end and the vinyl release (with its die-cut cover and the improved fidelity intrinsic to the medium) is positively regal.
Ground Control Magazine – David Bowie – blackstar – [CD review] groundcontrolmag.com/david-bowie-blackstar-review