David Bowie – ‘Blackstar’ [Review]
Where have all the real rock stars gone? Those unique individuals capable of capturing the imagination of a mass audience without dumbing down the fruits of their labours? The musicians who can spin your head around, widen your horizons, and still meet with large-scale acceptance?
On Blackstar – his twenty-sixth album – David Bowie inspires, provokes, bewilders and bewitches as only he can. Taking the scenic route through Blackstar‘s title track, full to bursting with exoticism, mysticism, intrigue and controversial allusions to the occult, you have to ask: Just how many younger musicians could pull this off at this level? One tangential bridge section that brings to mind shafts of sunlight poking through storm clouds and a tortured, soul-seaching segue back into the darkness later, and the answer comes.
None. None at all.
The fact is, jazz-ridden art rock is, today, an underground niche. The mainstream, the major labels, will barely go near it. ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore continues Bowie’s sax-augmented romp through what feels half like an experiment, and half like this is just how music is supposed to be. ‘Tis A Pity… is a fever dream in musical form – and it reinforces the fact that this is just not a normal experience.
Lazarus – steady, seductive grooves, a perfectly-timed vocal placed on a sonic pedestal, and just enough jarring, dissonant guitar to keep listeners on their toes – arrives as something close to relief from the madness. For six minutes or so it soothes without calming or numbing, turning the intensity down just far enough to turn the intro to Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) into a jolting wake-up call. Busy drums propel a sparse guitar riff into classic cop-show territory while Bowie’s vulnerable vocal paints a harshly emotive picture full of rumination and regret, and worrisome synths flit beneath the surface like butterflies in the belly.
Easy listening, this is not – but it is infinitely rewarding.
Behind its Disney soundtrack title, Girl Loves Me transmogrifies cathartic yelps and plodding bass into a dramatic, stately military march with a hint of Blackstar‘s outlandishness. You can practically picture an extravagant, colourful procession proceeding through sandy city streets, hailing a victory of the heart – and then things take a darker twist, walls of synths stalling the whole thing for just long enough to slice away the joy and replace it with a bitter, mournful aftertaste. A true album highlight that begs repeated listens.
Dollar Days‘ intro sparks a confident sense of familiarity. Memories of ballads past return before contrasting polyrhythms remove all certainty, holding the auditory cortex in a vice-like grip as it struggles to work out what the hell is going on. Dollar Days is a song ahead of its time, the dust it kicks up obscuring a single comparative thought. There is nothing to compare this to; if you think you’ve heard all music has to offer, think again.
I Can’t Give Everything Away‘s title highlights a key aspect of David Bowie’s success as a musician, an artist, and a star: His unparalleled mastery of mystique. Once more, an intro hints at the familiar past before daunting yet uplifting uncertainty sets in. Chorus hooks become cliffhangers; a consistently present sax weaves audible tapestries with fearless abandon; and even the most right-angled departure is reined in in the name of keeping things moving toward one last climax, a tasteful true-rock drum flourish, a sustained chord, and a satisfied lead guitar goodbye.
Overall, listening to Blackstar is like watching a surreal film in 4K. You get the feeling you could reach out and touch this work of art, and maybe disappear into it – despite all rational thoughts to the contrary. Blackstar is full of struggle and frustration, and in this sense especially, it’s truly a work of art, embodying as it does the challenges central to creating anything that has never existed before.
More than anything else, Blackstar is both timely and relevant. We live in a world dominated by the same-old-same-old, repeated and recycled and half-baked to nowhere near perfection. Yet here we have David Bowie, a member of the old guard in 2016, continuing to show the world how it’s done.
As overused as this word often is: Genius.
TMMP RATING: 98% (Essential Listening!)
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