It’s equally surprising and rewarding to find that David Bowie’s 25th studio album in 49 years is of such finesse and cutting edge rigor. Even though his passing seemed inevitable, there are no signs of letting up on this parting record, conceding to mediocrity or touching on former glories in order to remind you once more of his greatness. The man who fell to earth has already achieved all of that and now, returning to whence he came, he leaves us with an oddity as wondrous as the records he first touched us with in the 60s.
If previous LP, The Next Day was a melancholic reminiscence of what once was, then Blackstar is a Tarkovsky-styled, peer into the future, built around jazz and haunting morbid-pagan narratives.
The album’s sound is led by jazz quartet saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose moving oeuvres form a sacrosanct, painful backing to Bowie’s poetic dissonance. It’s the work of Mark Guiliana –the quartet’s drummer- that builds the album’s epic arches and points of tension. ‘Sue (or in a season of crime)’ is reminiscent of Bowie’s previous collaboration with Goldie on ‘Mother’ (and to some extent Earthling, but we don’t need to talk about that,) and the resulting product is a finely molded and well-executed jazz opus. The musical dialogue between Bowie, McCaslin and Guiliana creates moving patterns and dark shadows of dynamic percussions, with heavy reverbs and poly-rhythmic beats. It’s hard to think of anyone else exacting this kind of style, especially someone with Bowie’s cult status. And while we’re on the subject of collaborations, it would rude not to mention the added input of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and former Bowie producer, Tony Visconti (doing a lot of co-production, ‘probably more than people think.’)
These aren’t Bowie’s first forays into jazz. His first instrument was the alto-sax, and Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane were both peppered with sax solos to some degree. Bowie’s half brother, Terry Burns introduced him to the likes of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. After Burns’ unfortunate suicide, Bowie went on to pay homage with the 1993 record , ‘Jump, they say,’ which featured avant-jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie.
Lead track ‘Blackstar’ is a hard single to pin-down, riddled with references to ‘solitary candles’ and ‘executions’ with other erstwhile pointers to his career-to-date, all in Bowie’s trademark out-of-body character motifs; ‘I’m not a movie star, I’m a blackstar.’ It’s oddly reminiscent of earlier track ‘Station to Station’ in terms of its progression, breakdown and switch in narrative; a trademark that has become instinctively Bowie.
Throughout the record, Bowie plays heavily on his terminality. Final track, ‘I can’t give everything away’ starts off with the line, ‘I knew something was very wrong’ – a song that eventually leads to the Starman crooning the track’s title. It’s alright David, you’ve given enough. Yet, to hear Blackstar drown out to these final utterings, it’s hard not to feel hollow and sad knowing that there really is nothing left to give.
And then there’s the sad parable of ‘Lazarus,’ who won’t be returning from the dead this time. There are contexts and subtexts lying beneath this track’s rumbling echoes. As he talks about death, and all that precedes it in just a few delicate proses, Bowie alludes to this new sense of freedom, that one can only find at the bitter end. ‘Just like that bluebird, oh I’ll be free,’ with a jest and a smile, ‘ain’t that just like me.’ Cutting, even in passing.
In one of Bowie’s final, big-screen outings, as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 ‘The Prestige’, Bowie’s character discusses the nature of obsession with Hugh Jackman’s vindictive Robert Angier. ‘I can recognize an obsession, no good will come of it,’ Tesla warns.
‘Why, haven’t good come of your obsessions?’ Angier replies.
‘I followed them too long. I’m their slave, and one day they’ll choose to destroy me.’ How fitting, for a final parting, but ain’t that just like him.