When David Bowie returned after a long, ten-year hiatus with The Next Day in 2013, the fans rejoiced as the great re-inventor pulled off one of the most unexpected and successful comebacks in music history. Despite the success, the music in the album sounded more like a tribute to Bowie’s past, using styles from the classic Bowie albums instead of doing what he does best: re-inventing himself. The cover art wasn’t even original; it was just a reworked version of the original cover of “Heroes”. However, when Blackstar was released on Jan. 8, Bowie’s birthday and two days before his tragic death, it became apparent that The Next Day was really just the beginning of a brand new chapter.
Pop’s original chameleon, Bowie was able to seamlessly transition between genres. “Once something is categorized and accepted … it loses its potency,” Bowie said in an interview with The New York Times in 1998. “It’s always been that way for me. The most imprisoning thing is to feel myself being pigeonholed.”
Staying true to his spirit, Bowie yet again makes a daring choice in Blackstar and does what no one expects him to. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer, even said, “The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.” Not only does Bowie turn his back to his roots of rock & roll, but he also goes one step further and teams up with a group of jazz musicians. And the result is beautiful, spectacular and a wonderful last chapter in the musician’s life and career.
It’s clear that Blackstar is Bowie’s new artsy project. Despite the ten-minute title track bearing a similarity to 1976’s “Station to Station,” the vague Middle Eastern sounds of the song and the story of an execution ritual that it paints suggest something completely new.
The smooth sounds of the saxophone are brought up again in “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore and Sue (Or In a Season of Crime).” A whirlwind of drum and saxophone improvisations backs up Bowie’s croons about desire and murder. Though remakes of an artist’s old songs usually have limited success (exceptions include Radiohead’s Like Spinning Plates and Beyoncé’s Fifty Shades of Grey version of Crazy in Love), the powerful beat of the drums and the fire the guitar gives only adds to the quality of the song “Nothing Has Changed.”
“Lazarus” plays homage to The Man Who Fell to Earth, the movie in which Bowie plays the character of an alien who comes to Earth in hopes of finding a way to save his home planet. The hauntingly beautiful, melancholic instrumentals are a perfect background to the song about the alien and death.
On “Girl Loves Me,” the lyrics become almost incomprehensible. There’s a clear incorporation of the elements of the Nasdat vocabulary from A Clockwork Orange and a smidge of Polari, but for the most part, the song is driven by Bowie’s powerful voice and the almost robotic like beat of the drums. This is not to say that the song isn’t great, rather it just showcases yet another time where Bowie is able to twist a genre to suit his own needs.
The most obviously beautiful song on Blackstar may be “Dollar Days,” which is the only song on the album that could come close to a conventional ballad. A more relaxed beat with the swooning sax creates an atmosphere in which Bowie is able to shine. With his recent passing, the lyric “I’m dying to” almost sounds like it could be “I’m dying, too,” making this song that much more meaningful.
“I Can’t Give Everything Away” circles back toward a familiar Bowie approach and ends with a satisfying climax. In a typical Bowie fashion, the song is a deeply melodic, slow-building rocker, decorated with the sounds of the synthesizer and the album’s sole guitar solo. A pointed farewell, the song closes out the album in the most satisfying way for Bowie fans.
Blackstar isn’t the new killer pop album that fans may have expected, but in a true Bowie manner, it’s something completely new and fantastic in its own right. Rich and spellbinding, Bowie delivers yet another solid album. Bowie’s final chapter in music ends with him in a position where he has made his best music: moving forward with no intention of stopping.