David Bowie (photo by Jimmy King, PR)
Over fifty years into a brilliant and groundbreaking career, David Bowie has delivered a powerfully innovative work that is destined to join the many landmark albums already found in his remarkable discography. This new work is Blackstar, which was released this Friday, January 8 on Bowie’s 69th birthday. Two days later, it became Bowie’s epitaph.
Bowie’s death on Sunday, January 10, 2016 sheds a new light on Blackstar. Created while he bravely fought cancer, Bowie knew this would be his final statement. In the words of his dear friend and producer Tony Visconti, “He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.”
Blackstar is the follow up to The Next Day, the 2013 album which was recorded in secret, ten years after his last album of original material. While The Next Daysurprised the music world with its sudden appearance, it also re-established Bowie as an artist still very capable of making vital, relevant music. Blackstar now takes things several steps ahead.
Upon initial examination, Blackstar features two songs that have already seen the light of day. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” was a new selection that opened Bowie’s 2014 career-spanning compilation album, Nothing Has Changed. It was also issued as a single with another new song, the non-album track “'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” as the B-side. Both of these songs are present on the new album, but they have been completely re-recorded.
Blackstar is bursting with emotionally challenging songs, with odd time signatures, haunting saxes, rhythmic pulses, obscure lyrics and passionate vocals dotting the landscape. Towards it's end, even a conventional pop melody arises amid the album’s eccentricities. As he did on The Next Day, Bowie addresses mortality on Blackstar, and the subject matter mirrors the songs' dark nature. The most obvious example is “Lazarus,” written by Bowie for the off-Broadway production of the same name. Now, we realize Bowie was bravely staring at his own mortality.
Bowie had consistently steered his career by pushing the artistic envelope, and on Blackstar, he gave it a forceful shove by boldly venturing towards jazz. It’s a style that had a major influence on him as a teen, but through the years, only made fleeting appearances in his work. But on Blackstar, he fully embraced the open mindedness of the genre and the possibilities it brought. This isn’t a jazz album, but a rock record driven by the characteristics and mindset of jazz.
The musicians Bowie choose to work with on Blackstar were first introduced to him in 2014 during the sessions for the first version of “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime).” That take featured the Maria Schneider Orchestra, which included saxophonist Donny McCaslin, drummer Mark Guiliana and guitarist Ben Monder. On Blackstar, McCaslin and Guiliana are back and they’ve brought with them keyboardist Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebvre, with Monder also coming along for the ride. They are musicians more than capable of challenging Bowie and eager to be challenged themselves. Also at Bowie’s side was his longtime producer, collaborator and musical partner, Tony Visconti, who helped make this vision a reality.
Besides being daring and innovative, Blackstar also amazes because it came so late in a career already filled with many innovations, artistic triumphs and milestones. Along with its predecessor, The Next Day, this album arrived after a lengthy period of inactivity, which caused some to believe that Bowie had retired. Realizing that he still had such important work within him makes Blackstar an even grander achievement, and with Bowie's passing, it suddenly takes on new significance.
For two days, we listened to Blackstar and formed a particular opinion. Now, that perception has been altered and Blackstar will stand as a farewell. As he had with his life, David Bowie made his mortality something to marvel.