Review: David Bowie's Blackstar

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[See Also: Revisiting Blackstar in light of Bowie’s passing]

SEEMINGLY in tandem, the Starman returns to our speakers as The Force Awakens across global cineplexes. Sure, it was little more than a coincidence—but could the timing have been better? David Bowie and Star Wars both are relevant-as-ever monuments of ‘70s sci-fi iconography. And much like J.J. Abrams’ blockbuster, Bowie’s previous album, 2013’s The Next Day, wiped the slate clean while satisfying deeply rooted nostalgia (right down to its album art and musical callbacks). It too was a roaring artistic success, if not a commercial one. So radiant and tuneful, The Next Day holds up as a late-period masterwork. Bowie’s latest twilight opus Blackstar, to be released on his 69th birthday, doesn’t soar quite as high. Instead, it veers sharply from a long-traversed career orbit into far-flung sonic frontiers. This collection of seven thorny tracks is a companion of sorts to The Next Day, a distorted sibling. Now that Bowie has reestablished his bona fides, he’s free to go a bit nuts. And nuts is where he goes, thrillingly and with glorious abandon, on Blackstar.

Blackstar holds the distinction as one of David Bowie’s strangest releases, and at times it even edges out the likes of Low and “Heroes” in that regard. On the surface alone, it’s an improbable feat for an artist of Bowie’s age and impressive oeuvre. And yet, in the wrong hands weirdness isn’t a virtue, but a cheap (if not maddening) stunt. With Blackstar, however, Bowie exhibits an ease with the bizarre, as if he’s flexing a well-honed muscle. His natural aptitude is unmistakable and impossible to fake. Taken individually, these songs seem like logical progressions from The Next Day’s riotous “If You Can See Me”. When packaged together, the album’s 41 minutes of clatter, jazz, and incantation coalesce into something otherworldly and almost marvelous.

I hedge my praise with weasel words because Blackstar feels awkwardly paced and frustratingly incomplete. It begins with a sprawling, ten-minute title track that unfurls in three movements. The opener’s middle section is as beautiful and haunting as anything Bowie has recorded, a sweeping bit of mystical balladry. It ought to be a grand centerpiece, the overblown apex Blackstar notably lacks. Once “Blackstar” concludes its wayward trajectory, the album settles into a leisurely sequence of six showstoppers—and then, with zero fanfare, it ends.

Now that I’ve registered my (somewhat churlish) quibbles, I should say the remainder of Blackstar, however disjointed and missing a center of gravity, is close to wonderful. Bowie and longtime producer Tony Visconti have teamed with the saxophonist Donny McCaslin to create a seamless mixture of rock and jazz. This combination of genres births delirious portmanteaus—which Björk discovered earlier and differently with a song like “Hyperballad”—on “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” and “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”. The halting start-and-stop of “Girl Loves Me” gives way to the swooning sax sway of “Dollar Days” and then the lovely mid-tempo cheese of “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. But “Lazarus” is the true triumph of Blackstar, a sleazy and magnificent horn-ridden torch song that could’ve fit comfortably within Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy.

No, Blackstar’s components don’t add up to a perfect whole. Still, it’s as exciting as Bob Dylan’s latter-day masterpieces without the need to look backward for inspiration. David Bowie endures as a visionary, though his fans will have to settle for a trade off. The Next Day contained 14 incredible songs that felt familiar. Blackstar is shorter in length and also less purely enjoyable. Despite its many flaws, it’s an album of constant surprise.

On “Lazarus” Bowie sings “I've got drama, can't be stolen/Everybody knows me now.” I beg to differ. We know very little about the artist who bellows throughout his latest work. With Blackstar David Bowie remains an enigma, musically and lyrically. He emerges from isolation here and there to unleash some of the best music of his career. I doubt any of us are closer to understanding the man behind the squeals and squawks on Blackstar. This, of course, is not a complaint. The dark corners of mystery are often more welcoming than the harsh light of day. B PLUS