Album Review: ★ [Blackstar]WonkeyDude98 Mini-Description: In my fourteenth album review, I talk about David Bowie's final album, and how it's jazz-rock perfection.
Best Songs: "Girl Loves Me", "Dollar Days", "I Can't Give Everything Away", "Lazarus", "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime", "Blackstar", "'Tis A Pity She Was A..."
Worst Song: N/A
There's no easy way to do this review, and there really shouldn't be any easy way to talk about this album.
David Bowie has always been a...fascinating case. I feel guilty not knowing more of his discography, but I've heard Heathen and most of his classics. And honestly, he might have my favorite discography of all time. Low, Hunky Dory, Heroes, Heathen, and Scary Monsters are all perfect 10 classics in my book, and Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs were still very great albums regardless. While I'll probably never be able to bring myself to love Ziggy Stardust more than just like it, I still have a lot of respect for it.
Then came Let's Dance. An eight-track album that was relatively short in track length, and pulled many elements from Low, which is always a plus considering I'd put that in his top 4, but...I'll be honest. Let's Dance is one of the only four albums I've heard in my short time listening to music that I'd quantifiably give an 11/10. Weirdly accessible for a Bowie album, without a single moment feeling insubstantial or out-of-place, it was perfection. And while Heathen wasn't quite as good when I skipped the gap (probably for the better: I've heard that the albums in between are not very good, and I'd rather be blissfully ignorant, as cowardly as that sounds), it showed Bowie at his darkest and most weathered to date, fixing many previous issues I had with his other albums.
Then....January 2016 happened. On Bowie's 69th birthday, he released a cryptically named and written album named Blackstar, which got notable attention and a lot of positive buzz.
But no one could have...great, the review hasn't even begun yet and I'm already breaking up. Two days after the release of the album, David Bowie had passed away of liver cancer. It shocked millions, including me. No one could have saw it coming. So...I really had no choice. I had to listen to Blackstar, and judge it objectively. So what did I get?
....okay, if I'm honest, Blackstar might just be his best work since Let's Dance, probably his best work ever! David Bowie definitely put all that he possibly could into this album, because not only is there not one bad song on this album, I'd argue that every single moment on this album is incredible, and honestly all 7 of these are contenders for my favorite song of all time! And yes, before you ask, this is my genuine, unbiased opinion.
The most palpable changes in comparison to other David Bowie albums are the vocals. For most people, this has been the album's most crippling weakness. His voice is very shaky and aged, often breaking at points, and for most it doesn't help that David wrote his own vocal lines. But within this album's context, the performances on this album are amazing. Bowie does sacrifice some of his harder swagger on this album, but he switches it with a very frail and wise performance, and that alone can break me down. It's almost too real to possibly elaborate on.
Even if I did have issues with the singing on here, they wouldn't be that much of a detraction because now we have to come to the instrumentation and the production. While you can obviously hear the Boards of Canada influences (which is weird considering I don't like their most acclaimed album Geogaddi at all), but Bowie took most inspiration from Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips (the latter a band I still really wish I could get into as much as I want to, they are just that intense). The former is very easy to point out, considering this album is experimental jazz-rock, and To Pimp A Butterfly was coated from head to toe in West Coast jazz. The latter, however, is much less noticeable, as Bowie and MC Ride on totally different spectrums. However, Death Grips have always been trippy, as well as having a certain death-centered savagery that characterizes their music, as well as Blackstar.
And of course, every composition on this album is 50 shades of awesome. I loved the sandier guitar-sax blends on Lazarus, the more brash snares and piano chords on 'Tis A Pity, with a buildup of loud saxophones that somehow manages to sound rewarding without a gigantic explosion of payoff, the more frantic fragments of guitar and rapid drums on Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), the more loose, raw crackles that edge off Girl Loves Me, the heartstring-ripping acoustic ballad Dollar Days, and the peppering harmonica, brittle hi-hats, and little pieces of sax and strings that shower down on the heavenly closer I Can't Give Everything Away, and...well. It's definitely an album with many sides tonally.
And that's not even mentioning the title track, and all the great moments on that song alone. Every one of the elements of the 600 second behemoth have their place. The colder piano chords and jolting bassline that royal off the drizzle of percussion that starts off the song, before transforming into a killer sax solo, then reeling back into the darkness, until an even better solo slows the tempo into a calmed, quiet violin section, while keeping the atmosphere in check with a choir that kinda reminds me of Warszawa off of Low, until Bowie's haunting backing vocal filter warps the song with pitch-black synth blends and more simple grooves, before the strings come in and shines a light from heaven (darnit I did that to myself), until contorting into the darkness again, before ending with a mixture of every section of the song combined with flute/clarinet fragments, all coming together in an experience that's almost cinematic. And what's weird is, despite the fact that this is the only song here to really use darker textures, it's still overshadowed by Lazarus and the last three songs here in terms of atmosphere, which just goes to show you how bleak and dark this album is.
But now, we have to come to lyrics and themes. But for now, let's put the obvious aside, because Tis A Pity, (especially) Sue, and Girl Loves Me are built around a play by Jon Ford, and the formermost song is actually named after it. Said song starts rather small, depicting the First World War where prostitution thrived as did the women partaking, all the while stealing the soldier's money and their health, even in the back of their mind that they will be condemned for it.
It gets all the darker on Sue, where David Bowie takes the role of Soranzo, a lover of the woman, where it reveals itself as an ugly story of romance, adultery, incest, and murder. After Soranzo "marries" Annabella (the woman in the play), he tells her that she's safe from the food poisoning (which when considering the condition of Bowie during the recording rings as eerily prophetic), and says that he knows about her being....well...pregnant. To whom, he doesn't know.
Then by the third verse we get a shift in first person POV to Giovanni, the brother of Annabella, her real husband, and the father of her child, professing his love to her, completely unaware of Soranzo's existence, and vice versa. But after reading the note, Giovanni goes to Soranzo's house in a fit of rage and...he kills Annabella.
But that's not to say that this album condemns sensuality, on Dollar Days he describes it as a way to keep him alive inside in his final days, though knowing that these possessions still ring hollow to him.
And now...we have to fry the big fish. Blackstar, including the play, is a semi-improvised concept album about Bowie's own death. He has scars that can't be seen, he's not yet ready to let go of the world, he's not satisfied, and yet he almost seems to eagerly await his incurable death, almost treating it as an escape from the rest of the world, a way to be free...just like that bluebird. He refers to himself as a black star, a symbol of standing out and being vastly different from the rest of the pack, and if you've ever listened to a Bowie album, you'd know he wasn't wrong.
In death, he lets everything slip from him. He doesn't need any materialistic possessions anymore, he's set for...well...something other than life. Death meets him and says that it will take him home, and he seems to almost look forward to it. There's never been so much of a manifestation of the phrase "looking death in the eye" quite like this album.
And then you have moments where this album almost gets symbolic, like on Lazarus, finally meeting Jesus on his donkey. And as he says on this and Dollar Days, he can't die in both his current home and the home he loves most, and he's fine with that. He asks quite vulgarly where Monday went on Girl Loves Me (a song LITTERED with Nadsat, a language from A Clockwork Orange, an aspect I just love), which given songs Sunday, Love You Till Tuesday, Thursday's Child, Friday On My Mind, and Drive-In Saturday, as well as the fact that Monday could mean the beginning of life, and especially including the fact that he didn't even make it to said Monday (he died on a Sunday), it comes off as every kind of chilling.
Remember when I talked about the instrumentation on the closer for this album? Well, as he says, he can't give everything away. As he said last track, he isn't forgetting his fans in any way, but he can't do everything that he wants to do, he can't say everything he wants to say. "Saying more, but feeling less/Saying no, but meaning yes/That is all I ever meant/That's the message that I sent".
He's shutting all the doors, saying goodbye to the Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Starman, and all of his other weird, kooky characters. He wants his fans to see him for him now. And to send off yourself like that...that's very, very powerful. And as he sings that final elongated "away" and ascends to heaven on a heavenly synth sparkle, the hi-hats, and the harmonica samples...he's got A New Career In A New Town now.
All of this leaves one final question: could this album work as well as it does without the knowledge of this being Bowie's final album, his swan song project? In other words, is this album good because of his passing? Well, yes and no. On one hand, I find it pretty disrespectful that people are giving this such good reviews on the pure basis of Bowie's death, that's just petty. On the other hand, it's only when you consider this album on those terms does it really snap into focus.
I'm in awe of this album. Writing for this actually made me tear up. If anything, this proves that David Bowie was one of the only legends from the 70s that truly live up to their legacy. Unpopular opinion as this is, it would appear that his swan song is not only my favorite album of is, but also possibly my favorite album of all time. Bringing all the stories he had opened throughout his years to a close, it's not for everyone, it's raw and possibly a bit too real. But there's a place to acknowledge when an album is perfect. Honestly, for me this is an 11/10, a score I don't give out lightly at all. Please, if you haven't checked this out, change that.
Fun fact: this review could have come out hours ago or maybe even yesterday if draft one of this didn't get inexplicably deleted the thirty minutes I was away from my iPad.
This is WonkeyDude98, and maybe Nick Cave's new album can rally to match this. But first, we have to deal with Thomas Rhett, RiFF RAFF, and Bastille. That'll be fun....
Best review you've ever done. Kinda excited for Bastille. It's fun when you do one-hit wonders, like him, Kygo, OMI, Rixton, gnash etc. - ProPanda
^ this - SwagFlicks
None of those people were fun to talk about, and even if Wild World is better than I expected (expecting a 2/10, and no recommendation even to fans of Bastille like I probably would have used to be), it's not gonna be good, and it's not gonna be fun because I liked Bad Blood.
And thanks! - WonkeyDude98
Andrew: I meant it's fun when you tackle artists like that, good or bad. - ProPanda
Haha. - WonkeyDude98
I was agreeing with your first sentence. - SwagFlicks
Oh. Thank you - ProPanda
Why did you shorten one of the songs name at the beginning? - RalphBob
Take a wild guess. - WonkeyDude98
I didn't know if admin changed it, or if you just didn't want to type it. I guess the latter due to your parents hating profanity. - RalphBob
It was the latter, in fact. - WonkeyDude98
Great review. And yeah, the draft thing has happened to me, it's very annoying. - Martinglez