*Warning: This page contains horrific photoshops of my face on David Bowie’s body. Some readers may find this content disturbing*
Released: January 8, 2016
David Bowie is a chameleon. This was established and ingrained in any learned mind years ago, and any trendsetter or musical aficionado surely agrees. He isn’t breaching uncharted territory per se on Blackstar, but to pin the expectation on him as some god-tier innovator isn’t fair in the slightest, and I’ve never held him to such a standard. Consider him more a Weird Al Yankovich of sorts, in that he can take any monumental breakthrough in modern music (former or present), and tweak it with his own personal Guy Fieri flavor explosion, to craft a work of art that stands alone in its own melodic fervor. That and he’s a master of parody, carefully waltzing his way into the slow, four decade decline that is Mick Jagger’s career (kidding). In 2016, The “Thin White Duke” builds further upon his own personal renaissance, continuing the progress achieved with 2013’s The Next Day, and constructing the themes and styles presented to build a more concise, jazz-influenced blend of art rock in Blackstar.
Funny the musical genesis of David Bowie’s storied career carries roots in his talents as a saxophone player, seeing as this and other jazz influences have invaded Blackstar’s careful framework. There’s a tad bit of experimentation to show for in the title track, as well as in the mad rush of “‘Tis a Pity, She Was a Whore”, but further analysis of the weirder portions of the record, or the Midas touch of strange characters present in any of Bowie’s work reveal influences in abundance right on the surface. David Bowie is paying homage to his acquired taste for free-form jazz, and the musicians recruited along for the ride deliver a more natural flavor in execution. Ben Monder’s sleek guitar, Jason Lindner’s suave piano, and Donny McCaslin’s storied saxophone shatter any mold that is normally plastered on session musicians. The product is a natural flowing groove that is formed, carrying every single track. The feeling that these guys have played for years with Bowie isn’t too far fetched listening to a track such as Lazarus, where each layer of the music sticks together like glue. You get the impression that these guys are willing and capable to jam on a whim in any recording session (or live performance, pretty please!). That opinion wasn’t so strong with The Next Day. The narrower, cookie-cutter aspects of the former record have been eliminated completely.
While certain tracks absolutely shine, and even prefaced a newfound reformation in David Bowie’s career, it still leaves some to be desired. What is commendable about Blackstar is its conciseness. There is not a minute wasted; it is immediately gripping from start to finish. Furthermore, the simplistic aspects of the music videos, however peculiar they may be, are just what we ask out of a 69 year old Bowie. Presenting himself as some sort of hybrid mix between Bone Machine era Tom Waits, with ragged cloth and black eye-holes, and David Byrne with a tall, silver fox haircut, Bowie encapsulates with fruitful electronic sounds, and a little jazz fusion experimentation in “Blackstar”, the first track on the record. What an intro it is, churning in Bowie’s soft, prayerful quips. His delicate vocals surely illustrate his growing age perfectly, as his ghostly whispers carry every arrangement, both fast and slow. “I’m a Blackstar! I’m a Blackstar!”, he croons. With the ten minute title track, the standard is set, and on just a seven song album, each song runs approximately in the 5-6 minute range after the first song. The 40 minute run time fully encapsulates the message “at the center of it all”. David Bowie is alive and well in 2016.
As Blackstar soldiers on into its second side, familiar electronics and frantic percussion (thank you, James Murphy) begin to be a dominating force in the songs, beginning on “Girl Loves Me”. All of the gawking over utilizing jazz elements takes a temporary seat on the sidelines. Longtime on-and-off producer Tony Visconti shines again in the mix. David Bowie is rightfully given immediate credit for his adaptations and innovations over a storied career, but Visconti has been there almost every step of the way, proving his prowess in the vocal production. Tracks are beautifully arranged in quiet expression, and while the moaning vocals may leave some flair to be desired as far as the anthemic, glam vocals and persona that channel a “Ziggy Stardust” of days past, Bowie’s veteran experience is definitively awe-inspiring, that as well as the simple fact that he is writing and producing quality records six decades after his introduction to the industry. Delicate murmurs in his falsetto overtone could easily lead hypothetical unfamiliar listeners to deduce that David Bowie is at least 80 years old, quietly personifying the free world on his deathbed with dying breath. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” hearkens a Homogenic-era Bjork song, specifically, the frantic breakdown in “Joga”. The beauty of the vocals amidst chaos of noodling piano and glitchy drums meld one of Blackstar’s greatest individual highlights, though each song certainly could stand as their own personal entity. Funny comparing the musicianship between tracks, where sophistication in complex arrangements of horns and drums is rebutted with a transcendent beauty of harsher tonality going from track to track. All of these factors are just further evidence to support claims of not only David Bowie’s influence on culture and music, but also music’s influence on his 21st century endeavors.
Hold off on the claims of revolution. Blackstar is out there, and David Bowie’s influence in his hey-day garnered the reputation he currently nurses, but despite pushing an envelope Rolling Stone will ultimately swoon over uncontrollably, this is Bowie’s evolving niche for new adaptation. He is a chameleon as stated earlier for reasons stemming from his knack for breaching new sounds in his own body of work. Call it a strict diet of milk, red peppers and cocaine, or David Bowie in his old age finally losing it. No, this is a sage in all of his wisdom continuing to churn out fresh innovations in his personal catalog. Blackstar is a worthy celebration of the finer facets of modern musical experimentation, and Bowie in his time as the predecessor makes all too much sense.