David Bowie 'Blackstar' Album Review: Junk Mail
Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton, John Gonzalez and Lindsay Haddox chat about David Bowie's new (and final) album, Blackstar.
Carolyn Menyes: It's a curious day to be reviewing David Bowie's Blackstar. Last night, news broke that the legendary rock icon passed away after an 18-month battle with cancer. Now, the album's producer Toni Visconti confirmed that this album is a goodbye to his fans and the world from Bowie himself. He knew he was dying, and with this news, Blackstar seems to take on a whole new meaning. Lyrics like the opening track's "Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside / Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / I'm a blackstar," just resonate totally differently to me today than they did upon my first listen on Friday (Bowie's 69th birthday and this album's release date).
Is there a way to listen to this album separate from the tragic news of Bowie's passing? Can we and should we try?
John Gonzalez: Like you Carolyn, I began digging into this album days ago. Its title track threw me upon first listen. On the second half, Bowie chants “I’m a Blackstar” in between denouncing the ideas that he is a “film star,” “pop star,” “wandering star” or a “porn star." At the time I found it odd that an icon who in many ways was all of the above would think otherwise. Upon his untimely passing last night and the outpouring of love and praise today I realized what he meant.
Truth is Bowie was a talent and category all to himself. The genesis to a generation of future pop chameleons; a bit of everything and yet none of the above. Like his career, his final album plays like a sonic painting. Weaving together all the things that made him such an inspiration too many. From its blend of organic instrumentation and studio wizardry, to his one-of-a-kind voice drenched with soul and heavy with age, but still malleable, haunting and full of character.
“Blackstar” kicks off the album like a slow decent into the mind of a mad scientist, while "Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" feels like the opening dance number in a '70s rock opera. "Lazarus" is easily my favorite and the strongest song on the album, and its remaining records all seem to fall in line with the tone set by its preceding singles. It's no coincidence that the star of '80s rock musical Labyrinth would make a project that plays more like a musical score than a collection of songs. But then again, any true Bowie fan would probably be quick to remind me that Bowie was creating these kind of albums long before the release of that film, and as Blackstar indicates, well into his last days.
His passing aside, the project is a strong and appropriate effort from an act with nothing left to prove but still so much to give. It's great to see that in the face of his mortality, the artist who had endless creativity was still able to orchestrate a fitting finale. I think Blackstar can be appreciated both as a standalone project and as a goodbye to one of the greats.
Lindsay Haddox: When Blackstar first came out on Friday (Jan. 8), no one would have expected Bowie to die so soon after and I think that his untimely death does play a lot into looking at this album in a different light. When I first heard it, I was very thrown off and confused as to whether I would enjoy it or not. Going back and re-listening to it all after his death does make me appreciate it all more. Like John said, he had nothing to prove, but still so much to give and that is what he did. I think Bowie knew this would be his last album not because he was done making music, but he knew he wouldn't live to make another one and that is very prominent in his lyrics.
Instrumentally and lyrically it is absolutely beautiful and plays like a story. In his final song "I Can't Give Everything Away" is seems as if Bowie has accepted his fate and knew what was to come beginning with the lyrics "I know something is very wrong / The pulse returns the prodigal sons / The blackout hearts, the flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes." So ultimately I don't feel that his album should be separated from his death, because it does not seem that he really wanted to separate his music and the fact that he was dying with Blackstar.
Ryan Middleton: Reviewing this just a few hours after learning of Bowie's passing is not easy, but it adds new meaning to this album. A lot of the lyrics that have been pointed out or the visuals for "Lazarus," which might have just been played off as another piece of Bowie's artistic genius, were still that, but also signals to his fans that this was the final time that we would receive something new from the rock n roll legend. As you all have pointed out, this was his final farewell to his fans and it is a beautiful, textured and quintessential Bowie piece of work that is remarkably creative and engaging, despite some of the heady and lengthy instrumental bits.
CM: It seems, then, that we can continue to sort of work in the narrative of Bowie's death into this review -- it sort of seems like that's what he wanted.
Bowie has always been an experimental artist, so it's no surprise that he carried that through on to Blackstar. In interviews leading up to the album's release, Bowie cited Kendrick Lamar's blend of incorporating free form jazz into hip-hop as a big inspiration for this album, and that's everywhere. From opening track "Blackstar" to the closing moments of "I Can't Give Everything Away," there are spurts of brass and saxophone. It gives this album a sort of messy and chaotic feeling, but all at once, there's a sense of tightness and control. And, I don't know, maybe I'm reaching here, but that sort of dichotomy feels like the nature of life and death. This album sounds crazy and urgent, but there's still moments of relief and a plan to all of it.
Normally, a nine-minute jazz fest on the nature of death followed by no songs shorter than 4:40 would be a major turn-off for me, but on Blackstar, it all works, and I think this would work regardless of his death. It's odd but accessible, with a pop glimmer that harkens back to Ziggy Stardust. Perhaps that's because this album feels less like slam poetry and more like an earnest letter.
I love the lyricism on this record... "Look up here, I'm in heaven I've got scars that can't be seen / I've got drama, can't be stolen / Everybody knows me now" from "Lazarus" and the words Lindsay pointed out from the album's closer are just some of my favorites. These are the words of a man who knows the end is near, and it's all such a poignant goodbye. I'm not going to pretend that I grew up idolizing or listening to David Bowie beyond a few hits that made it to classic rock radio -- I didn't -- but this album is breaking my heart today.
JG: It does tug at the heart strings a bit, but it’s so inspiring to see him still remain so creative in the face of death. It’s true that at this point we cannot and probably shouldn’t try to look at this album outside of how Bowie intended it, as his “parting gift.” However it very much still can stand outside of his death as a strong piece of work. I like what you said Carolyn about the album feeling urgent, I almost like that element of it. Before realizing it as his goodbye, I found myself really enjoying the adventure title track “Blackstar” took me on when I first listened Friday. I also really enjoyed “Lazarus.” I can see the Kendrick influences as well as others. Elements of this album easily be found on projects from Kanye West, Alabama Shakes, Santigold or Mr. Hudson.
Ryan, you pointed out some of the albums lengthier instrumental bits but I felt like they played really well, the sax and trumpet filled the gaps nicely in the absence of vocals. I also appreciate that the album was only seven songs. It was a quick but full bodied listen.
I too didn’t grow up on Bowie but I found myself connecting with him after this project.
LH: You can definitely see that Bowie had many inspirations for his latest album throughout. What also sticks out about his inspiration forBlackstar is the fact that he paid homage to himself in his final song "I Can't Give Everything Away" using the harmonica theme from his "A Career in a New Town."
I too did not find myself listening to tons of Bowie as a kid, but from what I have listened to I think that this album is very him. When you listen to any old Bowie album a lot of them play like musicals and have lengthier instrumental bits. This is what made Bowie so different when he created music, he did it on his terms and his final album is no different. I think being able to put the lyrics to something so specific with this album makes it easier to connect. I also feel that Bowie gave this album his all and made something that he knew he would be proud to leave the world with.
RM: Bowie got into music because it was his way of being rebellious. It is fitting that in his final chapter that he continued to show growth into new elements of his pop, rock world. The jazzy elements that play prominently throughout this album have been experimented with throughout his career, but that freestyling nature of jazz with lengthy solos and interludes is part of what makes this album so unique.
Another poignant piece of symbolism that couldn't have been scripted, but just fits with the whole narrative of the Blackstar story is that the video for "Lazarus" was released four days before his death. The story of Lazarus, involves a man that Jesus brought back from the dead four days after his passing.
Also the fact the album is seven songs may not be a coincidence. The number seven is generally considered in the biblical tradition to represent something that is finished or complete. Blackstar with seven songs was another sign that this was ultimate completion of his career.
CM: Oh, I doubt that seven-song length was a coincidence, few things on this album seem to be. And, let's be real, Bowie was never one to miss an opportunity to make a statement, so of course he was going to do so on his final release in every way he could. I don't know if Bowie knew exactly how much time he had left, but the idea that he released Blackstar on his birthday and that he chose "Lazarus" as a single probably aren't without reason.
I'm just mildly blown away by how purposeful this all feels, and I think that's influencing me and making me like this record so much. There aren't really any hooks here or things to sing along to. But there's meaning in every nook and cranny of Blackstar from the lyricism to the experimentation to the symbolism... it's a nice goodbye.
JG: All the things you guys just pointed out definitely increased my appreciation of this album. What a powerful statement to make. Bowie has managed to really create the kind of project we don't see now a days. It's conceptual, cohesive and littered with hidden meanings and "coincidences" for fans to obsess over for years to come.
I'm doing my third listen now and find myself hovering on "Girl Loves Me." What a haunting and animated vocal performance. In the midst of his melancholy he still had enough swag and energy to deliver and a great performance on probably the lightest song on the album, as far as subject matter anyway. He truly was an artist in every form because beyond creating an album, he's clearly created an experience for fans with Blackstar.
LH: I think we can all agree that Bowie has made a beautiful final album for fans and for people who may just be learning who he is. It goes to show that Bowie can appeal to absolutely anyone and make them feel something. I feel that this album just makes you look back at everything he has done and the greatness he has created in his lifetime.
John, happy you mentioned "Girl Loves Me" because that song sparked my interest from when I first listened to the album. It's so interesting and also a mixture of English and Nadsat (the made up language from A Clockwork Orange) which makes this song even more complex then at first listen. It also seems that this isn't the first time Bowie has been influenced by the book, using it's language in "Suffragette City." Just makes me think, what a quirky, intriguing man and even though I was never so into his music before this album is making me want to go explore everything he has done and pick it apart so I can get a better understanding of such an interesting guy.
RM: I am glad you guys mentioned "Girl Loves Me," because it is so soft with its orchestral strings, but the frenetic drums give it a wild and scattered energy. I am trying to think how I would have reviewed this on Friday or yesterday, but I am afraid so much of this wouldn't have made as much sense as they do now. In a morbid way, he needed to die for this album to have the impact and meaning it was indented to. The outro to "Dollar Days" is haunting now as he repeats "I'm dying to / I'm trying to."
Instrumentally, the LP is as creative and experimental as Bowie has ever been, while lyrically it is quite possibly the most personal work ever from Bowie.
RM: David Bowie's Blackstar is his tragic and glorious final chapter. It is Bowie at perhaps most experimental and most meaningful, commenting on the looming death that he knew was coming. Someone who constantly evolved and took on new personas, Bowie, the constant chameleon, was able to slip into a new style one last time.
His opening words are "Look up here / I'm in heaven." All of us will be looking up at the Blackstar tonight.
JG: Blackstar was clearly David Bowie's attempt at summarizing what he meant the world. Not a pop star or rock star or film star, but indeed a "Blackstar," something all his own. This album, like him, is like nothing else at the moment. It's a brooding and abrupt farewell from one of the greatest to ever do it. Through his many incarnations it's safe to say that we've had to say goodbye to Bowie in the past, or at least versions of him, but never this completely. Blackstar stands alone as a masterful work of art, every corner of the album is loaded with something for fans and critics to dissect for years to come. A fitting goodbye.
LH: I'm jumping on the Bowie wagon extremely late, but this album has made me a fan. Everything about it is beautiful, but it's also haunting and makes you really think about each song he made. Knowing what his ultimate fate would be he was able to use it to his advantage create a piece of work that will be talked about for year to come.
CM: David Bowie meant a lot of things to a lot of people, and I think that was all summarized beautifully in Blackstar. The album's exploration of death and meaning in life is poignant enough all its own, but with Bowie's own passing, the emotional punch lands just that much harder. While the music may be a little bit hard to swallow at times, it's still composed flawlessly and with purpose -- just like Bowie himself.