Barely more than a week into 2016, two huge events took place in the music world. First, David Bowie released Blackstar, his most ambitious and experimental album for almost thirty years. Then, two days later, on the 10th January, he passed away. It was a shocking and somewhat foreboding way to start the year, no doubt, and began an unfortunate trend that saw a number of revered musicians pass away in the following twelve months.
But Bowie, being the brilliant bastard that he is, wasn’t content to let his death become a TV montage of Ziggy Stardust theatrics and lightning bolt face paint. No – instead he faced his own death squarely in the face and turned it into an elaborate, cryptic and highly personal concept album that was his best release since 1977’s “Heroes”.
A work of art like Blackstar, in any medium, is a rare gift. How many great artists, no matter how brilliant, have had the opportunity or the devotion to create something like this? An album which reflects upon their whole career and then summons one final burst of creative genius to take on the last and most unknowable topic of all? Virginia Woolf called her own death “the one experience I will never write”, but with Blackstar Bowie has managed even that: he’s written his own death.
And how fantastically he’s written it, too. Blackstar is an album that is by turns delicate, dark, funereal, fun, and always intriguing. It draws together experimental jazz, industrial hip-hop, and classic Bowie glam-rock into a somehow cohesive whole that sounds like no other album. Among the various instruments that make up the sonic palette of Blackstar are saxophones, guitars, electronics, piano, harmonica, orchestral synths and both live and programmed drums.
The way in which these instruments are utilised to create a multitude of different sounds and tones is very impressive throughout. Opener ‘Blackstar’, for example, begins with a very sinister and sour saxophone line, but when that same saxophone returns a few minutes later and the track transitions into its middle section, the tone is a triumphant one. It’s in this middle section that some of Bowie’s most affecting lyrics can be found: singing as if he was viewing his own death in the third person, he laments:
‘Something happened on the day he died
His spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried:
I’m a Blackstar…I’m a Blackstar’
It’s just one of a number of haunting and beautiful moments that appear throughout the record. ‘Lazarus’ is another song that deals very directly with Bowie’s approaching death. Over a bed of sadly plucked guitars and mournful saxophones, Bowie sings the words that were heard the world over last January: ‘Look up here, man, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen’. To be addressed so openly from beyond the grave by someone who knew they were dying is frankly chilling, but the swelling conclusion to this song is incredibly moving and far from melancholy.
Elsewhere, Bowie’s lyrics and songwriting prove a bit more cryptic. ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ is a song that clearly demonstrates the influence of industrial hip-hop (and Death Grips in particular) with its skittish drums and electronics, while ‘Girl Loves Me’ is full of off-kilter rhythms and gurgling synths to soundtrack Bowie’s mysterious words.
The albums final two tracks, however, are its most direct. ‘Dollar Days’ is a gorgeous ballad of piano and acoustic guitar that erupts into a roaring sax solo at the halfway point. And this transitions wonderfully into ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, which, as the last song Bowie ever recorded, could not have been a more perfect send-off.
On this track we find Bowie playing a harmonica solo that strongly resembles the one from Low’s ‘A New Career in a New Town’, which seems sadly fitting coming at the very end of his career. The soft orchestral synths in the background of this track and the gently plucked guitar chords are incredibly moving, and build to a stirring, melancholy climax. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is the bittersweet sound of Bowie’s spirit gently leaving his body, and the perfect conclusion to his bold, brave and utterly unique swansong. Nobody else but Bowie could have made an album like Blackstar, and very few released better records in 2016. RIP.