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David Bowie – Blackstar | Album Review

Bowie’s back again, but is ‘Blackstar’ really worth the hype and hyperbole? Is this challenging record worth the investment? Read our review here!

David Bowie - Blackstar

Source: Official Album Artwork

One could argue that David Bowie is as culturally revered now as his commercial peak in the early 70’s. The surprise release of 2013’s The Next Day was heralded by critics and fans alike, but in hindsight perhaps this was just fuelled by hysteria surrounding one of pop’s greatest ever returns.

That isn’t to say that The Next Day was a bad release, oh quite contraire! But in reality it’s done nothing to expand the Bowie catalogue going forward. It was, if not much else, a fan pleaser, with many of his classic hallmarks on show. That’d be great for any other artist. If Guns N’ Roses came out tomorrow with an album that shared the same stylings as Appetite, they’d be given a standing ovation by everyone. However Bowie has always been different, never repeating himself, never settling, just pushing forward. That’s why Blackstar is the real test of Bowie’s resurgence.

This is Bowie pushing forward into new territories, expecting the audience to follow him into new realms on a quest of sonic exploration. When Bowie is ahead of the fold, he can often be at his best. Blackstar is certainly on a different curve to other artists, but is it a direction that compliments his critical acclaim?

Opener and title track ‘Blackstar’ is perhaps the most challenging listen on the album. Ominous, cold and bleak it dares you to immerse yourself entirely, and depending on your mindset, you may or may not take up this challenge.

Almost Dub-style bass pounds over a heavy drum beat as his new collective of Jazz musicians play sparingly over the top, almost sharing top billing with Bowie’s haunting and eclectic vocals. There’s no way of really making sense of the purpose or meaning in the lyrics of much of this album, and ‘Blackstar’ is probably the core example of this. Is it about ISIS, as one band member suggested? Probably yes and no in equal measure, there’s definitely something ominous there, but to pinpoint what would be mere guesswork. Bowie has clearly put as much thought and purpose into making his lyrics enigmatic as many artists do in making their message as clear as possible. It’s impossible to work out if this adds or detracts from the album, but it’s relatively unavoidable to just drift into the music and lose focus on the lyrics within the 10 minute running order of the title track.

‘Lazarus’, lifted from his new musical of the same name, is perhaps a little more straight up, well by this album’s standards anyway. Taking its cues from 90’s trip hop acts like Portishead and Massive Attack alongside newer influences like Kendrick Lamar. The beat is thick and pulsating as Bowie revisit’s Newton’s character from The Man Who Fell To Earth.

‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ has been reworked into an almost drum and bass style rhythm, with Bowie crooning his dramatic tale of murderous intentions. It’s apparent at this point in the album that it’s perhaps the backing band of guitarist Ben Monder, Jason Lindner on keyboards and Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin that are the real stars within this enigmatic album. Turning Syd Barrett esque time signatures and chord changes into substantially powerful soundscapes that immersify you into a world so different from anything presented musically before.

The Kendrick Lamar influence is probably the strongest on ‘Girl Loves Me’ as Bowie quasie-raps “Where The Fuck Did Monday Go” over a brooding but militaristic beat in the background. Again the lyrics are pretty indeterminable and anonymous, they aren’t a striking feature, although the enigmatic quality will give much ammo for the Bowieologists to make their analysis and post mad-cap theories. In reality the delivery and determinable content of the lyrics seem almost trail of thought, Bowie’s breathless crooning not often stopping for pause as he pours out words in streams of consciousness that confuse as much as they convey.

But isn’t that just the magic of Bowie. It’s certainly the magic of Blackstar. Just as curiosity has peaked Bowie pulls out an album that poses as many questions as it answers. Like the best season finale’s, we’re still trying to cross the I’s and make sense of the preceding events. Perhap’s this is an album we’ll never truly penetrate. But perhaps that’s the point. As the man himself puts it in the album closer ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, a gorgeous track that glistens and glows in almost glacial fashion.

Is Blackstar glorious Technicolor vintage Bowie? Was that ever the intention? Like few of his contemporaries, or even those who supposedly walk in his shadow, Bowie has delivered an album that prompts you to consume the music as an art-form, all involving and all consuming. And in this day of background Musak and shuffle streaming that’s definitely enough cause for applause alone!

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