The first and title track of Blackstar contains the central dilemma of Bowie’s swan song in synecdoche, presenting two contrasting approaches to impending death. The first is tumultuous struggle, a whirlwind of sonic ghosts, shards, and shadows; the second arrives at 4’21” of the 9’57” running time, the regaining of composure to helm the remainder of an exit strategy by design. The album’s seven songs masterfully weave this course between shock and calm that accompanies the reconciliation of weakening flesh and willful spirit, not only in their energy but in their blending of the definitive structure of Bowie’s demos with the free improvisations of Donny McCaslin’s saxophone work in particular (also Bowie’s first instrument). While defying barriers through changeability is perhaps the central theme of Bowie’s legacy, it has never felt so immediate or dire.
Bowie released earlier versions of the second and fourth tracks, “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime),” as a joint single in November of 2014, not long after he would have received his terminal cancer diagnosis. They plunge ahead with muscular lyrics depicting women (ostensibly versions of Bowie himself) making poor decisions, a hard-driving beat, and plaintively reeling sax (“’Tis a Pity”) and guitar (“Sue”). A post on Bowie’s Facebook page upon that initial release described “’Tis a Pity” as a rock version of Vorticism, an early twentieth century British art movement acknowledging WWI’s “shocking rawness,” a description that fits “Sue” as well. In this case, could it reflect the diminished capacity of creatively adopting personae to empower when faced with the ultimate outsider status?
On “Girl Loves Me,” the “female” (irrelevant whether cis or trans) transforms from an accessory to past drug-fueled benders to a saving grace in the realization that chances to wake up and snap out of them are in limited supply (“Where the f*** did Monday go?”). With an ominous two-chord progression as the backdrop, the verses march along in a yodel-inflected song-speech evoking an unhinged state-of-mind, giving way to a centering chanted mantra of a chorus (“Girl loves me, hey cheena”).
The song “Lazarus” is the album’s inescapable center of gravity, utilizing the largest font of each track’s inscrutably black-on-black liner notes, an unforgettable video, and its own theatrical production to pull its weight. In highly personal lyrics showcased by the meditative sparseness of the music, Bowie talks about it being “just like me” to demand freedom on the other side “just like that bluebird,” a nod to death as the unknown that wishful thinking cannot overcome. The video appropriately shows him almost fighting not to rise in his hospital bed; because his eyes are covered, he is unable to see what he is rising toward.
The final two songs, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” address the effect of Bowie’s public upon his experience of dying. As Debbie Harry of Blondie recently reflected, “That was consistent throughout his career: he had the ability to sell this oddity that he was, and make it clear to people who would normally be completely resistant to what he was doing. He reached millions and millions of people.” The style of “Dollar Days” harkens back to his more commercially accessible offerings, featuring acoustic guitar, piano, and strings, coupled with words about a continued need to “push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again” even while repeatedly “trying to, dying to” forget them. The poignancy of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” as the album closer lies in its assertion that the ways in which Bowie’s history is written posthumously (“the blackout hearts, the flowered news, with skull designs upon my shoes”) could never comprise the sum of him.
To close this review, I can’t help but call to mind 2002’s Heathen. The original tracks on that album were informed by a prescient anxiety that Bowie was sensing within NYC, his adopted home, shortly before 9/11. In response, several of these songs, like “Slip Away” and “I Would Be Your Slave,” stirringly and sentimentally call for open-heartedness in the presence of fear and loss. On Blackstar, both the difficulty and necessity of this request in the end become glaringly apparent, with not one utterance or note wasted on luxuries of time and health. Within Bowie’s prolific output of albums, it stands out as his most authentically alive and one of his most focused.
– Submitted by Amy Frishkey, Music Design