David Bowie ‘Blackstar’ – Review

17 Jan

If there was ever any doubt about the depth and intensity of David Bowie devotion then the sheer number of tributes that have flooded both the physical and online world this week now explicitly reveal it. It’s the passion of the tributes that is stunning. I’ve been a Bowie fan for as long as I can remember (from before I knew him as David Bowie and simply as the man-child in The Snowman) but I can’t claim anything like the furiously passionate connection that fan after fan after has expressed in their heartfelt testimonies. A quick reappraisal of his albums this week makes me think that, if possible, David Bowie has been underrated.

Being a Bowie fan makes you hold other artists up to a higher standard. Here is someone who put out eleven studio albums in the 1970s alone, all of them unique but almost equally special. That said, I think your preferred era (and in his case, like that of The Beatles, an era represented months, not years) says a lot about you. At university I was drawn to the obscure and immersive ‘Station to Station’ more than anything, a record that took its influence from seedy funk, but at times predicted both post-punk and, somehow, shoegaze. I remember being lured by the stark and impressive black and white photograph on the sleeve and bold red lettering. Really though my heart lies with the high camp and glam rock theatricality of ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders and Mars’, a record that, despite the concept and all the brilliant silliness, is best remembered for its irrepressible melodies. Everything else was glitter, and stardust.

There is surely no argument about Bowie’s position in Pop Culture, perhaps only second to the Beatles and Elvis in terms of sheer impact and influence. His effect on fashion, visual arts and video making, let alone music, is almost unparalleled, making him one of the true icons of 20th century art. There is a world full of great singers, great songwriters and great performers; Bowie was all of the above but he was so much more. A visionary with a unique perspective, an innovator, a beacon of culture and of liberal ideas about gender, race and sexuality. He crossed boundaries, reached out to young audiences and became familiar to older ones.

‘Blackstar’, his 27th studio album, summarises these great strengths succinctly and reminds us how enjoyable his work could be on a micro, not just a macro, level. One to one, ‘Blackstar’ forges a relationship with the listener that reminds you of Bowie’s single greatest strength – his ability to make everyone feel valued, important and part of a community that understands. Think of the teenagers who glammed up after seeing ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops, or the crowd that gathered for a singalong In Brixton this week. That he made this connection and forged this link whilst remaining as personally elusive as sinking sand, is remarkable.

‘Blackstar’ is, primarily, a relief. It’s a perfectly fitting final album and serves as a far better end note than the stodgy, ponderous and retrograde ‘The New Day’ would have done. The great thing though is that it’s a brilliant album in and of itself, not just because of the special gravity afforded to it by his death. Like the best Bowie albums, it feels like a natural continuation of his artistic vision without particularly sounding like anything else in his back catalogue. Of course there are echoes of the past – the piano can’t help but recall Mike Garson’s astonishing work on ‘Aladdin Sane’ while the title track feels like a progression of his more experimental work on ‘Outside’. Really though, his foray in to jazz-rock is largely unprecedented; there has certainly been a jazz influence from the very beginning but it has never stood out as blatantly as on ‘Tis a Pity She was a Whore’ or ‘Lazarus’.

It’s tempting, in the light of his death, to read too much in to the lyrics, as if he knew this would be his final statement. In actual fact, collaborators have revealed that Bowie was working on more music before his death, and he had had an interest in mortality and the afterlife for years. Still, lines like ‘oh I’ll be free, just like that bluebird’ take on new poignancy in the wake of his passing. He was certainly wrestling with the end, particularly on the charged ‘Lazurus’ where he boasts ‘I’ve got drama can’t be stolen / everybody knows me now.’ But even here he is inhabiting a character – the song is taken from the play of the same name, which Bowie had a hand in writing (it’s worth remembering that as a teenager, all Bowie longed to do was write musicals and create characters). There is a certain theatricality to ‘Blackstar’ that feels both extravagant and deeply honest. As if that has become a part of Bowie’s very DNA.

Musically dense and innovative, lyrically searching, and with singing that is assured and moving – these are traits of all the best Bowie albums. People will talk about His achievements – his innovations, his influence, his almost never ending stream of classic singles and genre twisting albums, his high fashion and kooky artistic impulses. But in its own way, ‘Blackstar’ might be his biggest achievement to date. I feel the fact that Bowie was sitting at number one on the morning of his death – the first artist to outsell Adele’s ’25’ – with an album as uncompromising, inventive and relevant as ‘Blackstar’ is a massive tribute to the artist, and says more about his legacy than anything else could.

8.5/10

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