Blast from the Past: Blackstar // David Bowie

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“Five years, what a surprise,” to quote the man himself in the curtain-raiser from his definitive long-player The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Indeed we’ve all been crying for the last five years, hard to believe half a decade has already flown by since David Bowie’s passing, three days into his seventieth year, and only 48 hours since the birthday release of his swansong and twenty-fifth long-player, Blackstar.

Naturally, there’s nothing original I can really say about Bowie without regurgitating two generations of the finest music writers before me; the path is so well worn. A contrarian viewpoint would probably contain more holes than a Swiss cheese.  

With the release of Blackstar so close to Bowie’s demise, the album predictably hit No.1 both here and in the US, unbelievably the first time the Thin White Duke sat astride the Billboard album chart summit, compared to nine times this side of the pond. With the stampede to hear Bowie’s final work a distant memory (with the year we’ve all just been through, even 12 months ago seems like a thousand years since) the $64,000 question centres on whether revisiting Blackstar now the sense of loss has dimmed a little, alters the listener’s experience.

The story of Blackstar starts with Bowie’s 2014 collaboration with renowned American jazz composer Maria Schneider, the Grammy Award winning single and alluringly discordant ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ launching yet another compilation. It was Schneider who’d originally introduced Bowie to saxophonist Donny McCaslin and drummer Mark Guiliana, both featuring on ‘Sue…….’ and its b-side, and retained for the Blackstar sessions, Bowie’s desire for a more jazzy feel to proceedings, whilst giving rock and roll as wide a berth as possible. The resultant ambiance is distinctly otherworldly and decidedly chilly, only really starting to thaw on the achingly beautiful ‘Dollar Days’. 

Constructed in similar secrecy to its predecessor The Next Day, again at New York’s Magic Shop studio and with long time collaborator Tony Visconti once more at the controls, the key difference on Blackstar was Bowie’s realisation his days were numbered; his sense of his own mortality a recurring theme throughout the seven tracks. The album’s title could refer to a medical term for a cancer lesion, although it’s also an obscure Elvis number – a huge influence on Bowie as well as sharing the same birthday. I could go on forever here, and you can imagine diehards interrogating every Blackstar second, starting with the near 10-minute title track and it’s woozy otherworldly centre, not forgetting the dead astronaut in the video. Also, Visconti yet again succeeds in his trademark periodic mangling of Bowie’s vocal. 

The cover art is also the first Bowie LP not to feature the man himself and again, this could be construed as Bowie’s acceptance of his fast approaching invitation with his maker. Alternatively it could be another example of mischievousness, knowing his impending departure would leave a multitude of clues and loose ends looking in back as well as ahead. This is perfectly encapsulated in closer ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’; are we talking worldly goods, innermost thoughts, or both? You can bet there are a million scratching heads out there, each presenting their own take on Major Tom’s parting shots. Bowie’s inscrutability like his constant reinvention, always part of his appeal. 

WIth time running out, it’s no real surprise ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ and it’s flip side ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ appear on Blackstar, albeit re-recorded and sharpened up. The former trades freeform jazz for drum and bass with much harder, sharper edges, McCaslin’s frenetic sax evocative of early Roxy Music. 

Despite being up against the clock, Bowie’s final weeks saw him tick one long standing bucket list item, namely creating his own musical. ‘Lazarus’, written in parallel with Blackstar, and based on ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ story, already immortalised in celluloid by Bowie, the track of the same name arguably Blackstar’s. The unforgettable video, Bowie’s eyes bandaged over, buttons sewn on instead, combined with the closing skull imagery and Bowie’s exit via a wardrobe, perhaps a telling indication of his imminent direction of travel as well as a fitting way to bow out.  

Right, let’s see what happens when we play this record backwards…..

Words by Michael Price


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