Reviews of David Bowie’s final LP Blackstar (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are four reactions, four impressions, four takes on Blackstar by David Bowie.
A lot of critics sometimes will get personal about an album, especially when one hits super close to home after recent events. As I key this, David Bowie’s passing is now 48 hours into its reality, and just this past Friday, he presented us with Blackstar, a release that as unmarkedly as Bowie as anything into his 27 album tenure. Is that a good or bad thing? Being unmarkedly Bowie is NEVER a bad thing, especially with regards to the brisk but tense 41 minutes presented, sprawling across 7 tracks that explore being face to face with death. The difference between many of the records that explore death as a central theme, Bowie’s context is what makes Blackstar a practice and exercise in futility, knowing that you are on the doorsteps of the afterlife. Tracks like the title track itself, sound like an exercise in debate given Bowie’s 18 month battle with cancer, especially when he says “I can’t answer why, just go with me, I’m-a take you home…” or given the events of this past Monday, the lyrics on “Lazarus” where he states “Look up here, I’m in heaven, I have scars that can’t be seen…” Every bit of lyrics on here taken within the context of the past 48 hours just feels as though there was a need to detail this account before the passing of David Bowie came, and in a succinct and sprawling 41 minutes, it’s such a surreal and chilling experience that regardless of the context it’s in, it is another fantastic album by David Bowie. He will surely be missed.
Chris Besinger, @STNNNGMPLS
David Bowie is (was) the undisputed king of the “return to form” album. Basically everything post Tin Machine (side note: Tin Machine were actually pretty good, though much maligned during the era, I think in part cuz rock critics resented the fact they had to interview Hunt Sales at the same time as Bowie, which fair point, but so in classic Bowie fashion he started making more abrasive, guitar rock just before it blew up worldwide. Actually, in every phase of his career Bowie is almost always just a few years (or months) before a trend) has been lauded as “he’s back!”. Now he is really, truly gone, but he still managed to get one more in before the wire.
Listening to “Blackstar”, for all the talk about the jazz band and the Scott Walker aspirations it really doesn’t feel all that different from 1995’s “Outside” or its follow-up, the drum’n’bass inspired “Earthling”, just the execution is much, much better. It does not come across so much as Bowie inserting himself into a group, as much as his identity taking over and mutating them. It still sounds like Bowie, basically. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” could almost be a Ziggy Stardust song, exchanging the guitars for saxophones.
“Blackstar” comes in at 41 minutes (which feels brief) versus “Outside” which was a grueling, CD-era 75 minute beast , his 90s reunion with Eno, a concept record about mental patients and a detective and a murdered girl and 1999, I think. It was all very heady and didn’t make a lick of sense to me then and probably makes even less sense to me now. “Blackstar” is more obviously, it seems , about a person confronting and maybe coming to terms with their mortality. Much ink has been spilled already about “Lazarus”, “Look up here/I’m in heaven”, is a chilling lyric when your record drops just days before you do, and death appears in one way or the other in just about every song. The repeated “I’m dying to” in “Dollar Days”, the title track seems to point to some sort of cryptic, occult death ritual and the line “the clinic called/the x-ray’s fine” which pops up in the midst of “Sue (Or a Season of Crime)”, clearly, death, health, a person’s legacy, all seems to have been weighing heavy on his mind.
I will say none of these songs appealed to me all that much on first listen. For being a weird record it felt, in part, like a half-measure, Bowie still trailing a foot in the pop world instead of going full-on Scott Walker bonkers. The band felt a bit too atmospheric, a bit too beholden to following him. But the album rewards repeated listens. His voice is clear and strong for the most part throughout the entire record, it doesn’t seem like a pained last gasp, in fact it feels like a fresh start. The band is flexible and attuned to him, giving him a freedom and confidence that he maybe hasn’t displayed since the 70s. It is a painful irony that Bowie’s best record in a long time will end up being his last.
Jon Behm, Reviler
I am sure that plenty of ink has been spilled already in decoding David Bowie’s final album Blackstar. I won’t attempt the level of analysis I have seen from those Bowie scholars far more knowledgeable than myself. To me, Blackstar is a record that I feel like I am going to need a bit of time to come to terms with. On one hand there’s the guilt that I never really listened to a pretty big swath of material from one of my favorite artists (particularly anything from the mid-nineties onward). There’s also the ever-present specter of the artist hanging over every track. Is Blackstar a message from beyond? An existential dissertation? Or is it simply a new face for an artist who was famous for changing his? All of the above? Or none?
Having listened to it all the way through several times this past week, my impression is that I like it. I love that he went pretty weird with it and that an album that feels this edgy is currently the number one record in the US. And I love some of the songs – particularly the dramatic and eerie title track (which is one part hymn, one part futurist pop). The imagery of the black star, a star that can’t be seen, is unsettling and appropriate.
I also particularly like the cryptically prophetic “Lazarus,” the menacing and nonsensical “Girl Loves Me,” and finally “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” because it’s beautiful and also because it’s the final song, the last gift from an artist that has given us so much. I hope to listen more and let the record sink in over time, discovering the pleasures and idiosyncrasies that are uncovered with familiarity. It’s also inspiration for me to finally getting around to listening to Bowie’s Electronic and Neoclassical periods. The only bright side I have found with his passing is that there is still a wealth of David Bowie material for me to discover.
I am glad I listened through Blackstar before Bowie passed away. The record is a whole separate beast post-death, and it is an interesting contrasting hearing these songs with the context that he wrote them with death at his doorstep. On initial listens, during a long road trip on a frigid weekend in early January, I felt like it was a shining example of “mature” Bowie combining his precision songwriting, proto-soul, enigmatic style and constant sense of adventure to explore darker, more earthly challenges. It was clearly his best album in a long, long time, and one that stood firmly on its own two feet. This wasn’t a retread, or some sort of coasting. It was 41 taught minutes of exploration that look at and through the world in a way that most artists wouldn’t be able to even begin to emulate, no matter their age. Then I found out that they were probably autobiographical. These songs, especially standouts like the title track and “Lazarus,” went from “heavy” to “ton of bricks heavy” as quickly as you could take in the news he had died. It is a record that is lush, but not pretty. There is a tension throughout, and cryptic, contemplative and heartfelt lyrics that push you further into the dark corners of the seven songs on the record.
I am glad that I liked this record before it become his swan song. It will forever be a highly emotive record for me, knowing the conditions under which it was created, but beyond the humanity behind it, it is the best album from the last third of his legendary career. This record is his final gift to us, his fans, and only will make us miss him more.