Review Summary: David Bowie the artist, at his finest, portrays David Bowie the man.
Before the recent death of its creator, I wasn't sure if Blackstar
was worthy of a "perfect" 5, as our system dictates. I was certain that "Blackstar," the titular track that I'd heard months prior to the album's release, was worthy of as much adulation as could be thrown its way, most especially from my humble camp. And before even hearing the body of work it was to be a part of, I felt certain that it would be equally as worthy of praise. Yet in the very small space between the moment my cosmic expectations were set by this quirky, devilish beast of a track and the moment I heard the gospel of its disciple tracks, I must confess I was a bit disappointed.
"'Tis a Pity She Was A Whore" is no suitable follow-up to the ominous "Blackstar." Lyrically, it's antithetical - so empty and vapid, compared to the rife-for-interpretation title track. Sure, "Lazarus" carried the spirit on, but not to such the same obscene degree of perfect strangeness that embodied the title track, leaving it feeling like a ghost of its predecessor. The frenetic back beat and industrial lows of "Sue" reminded me of a modern interpretation of "I'm Afraid of Americans" made ghastly by Bowie's drawn out and ephemeral vocals on the track, but there was an energy that didn't quite fit the epic landscape "Blackstar" had laid out for me. The sing-songy nonsense of "Girl Loves Me" interspersed with an easy-to-get-behind mantra of "Where the fuck did Monday go?" caught on all too easily, but again failed to complement this all-encompassing mother track imprinted on the back of my mind.
Without delving into "Dollar Days" and "I Can't Give Everything Away," you get the idea. The lengthy "Blackstar" track and its rather intricate music video companion had given me the notion that Blackstar
the album would somehow be a comprehensive epic that pulled everything back into the bleak vortex of this mad prophet with the bandaged and buttoned eyes and his cult of macabre skull-worshiping gypsies and gyrating Amish folk. The failure of the majority of the rest of the album to deliver on what I saw as a promise hit hard - for a while, at least. Again, for perspective, this was the reaction of a reviewer who knew nothing of David Bowie's 18 month long struggle with cancer. Someone with no idea that Blackstar
was a final farewell to the world from one of its premier performers.
Somehow, putting things in proper perspective - one we weren't meant
to know until January 11th, 2016 - has made a difference. Knowing that the songs on Blackstar
are David Bowie's last and knowing that Bowie, himself, penned them as his swansong, affects meaning on every syllable and inflection. Within moments of the announcement of his death, music publications began insisting to the world that "He was telling us, warning us, preparing us - for his death." And with lyrics about spirits rising and stepping aside, death and execution, being free as a bluebird, and giving everything away (or at least attempting to), there's almost no doubt that he was. Even the somber tone of Blackstar
seems telling in the wake... But who of us would have seen it to begin with?
Instead, we fell for the ruse fed to Rolling Stone that "Blackstar" was written about ISIS and said "boy, David Bowie's starting to show his age here a little, huh?" Personally, I take it as a cheeky parting shot from Bowie and company, and one to which I say bravo.
But for whatever intention, the carefully guarded secret of David Bowie's ill health kept the bleak symmetry of the joys and laments of a man in his darkest hour from the vantage of my initial listening. Only by placing the music in the context of David Bowie's death has that roadblock been removed - something I'm quite certain was deliberate on the part of the artist, as musical context so often is. And once that context is realized, so is the dark beauty of Blackstar
I still believe, however, that the title track sets itself aside in its own realm. Whether or not it was penned about ISIS (as reported by Danny McCaslin) or if it's simply meant to keep the public off-guard while Bowie tells the grand tale of his own death and prophecies his successor ("Somebody else took his place and bravely cried (I'm a Blackstar, I'm a Blackstar")
is all speculative at this point, but a mystery that remains important to the mystique of the track and album as a whole. But the track itself carries its own inimitable style and swagger, leaving the rest of the album to proudly march in its shadow. A long and unavoidable shadow at that, considering that the title track appears to tell the heroic story of David Bowie the artist while the rest of the album articulates the tragic tale of the fall of David Bowie the man.
Rather than being empty and vapid, "Sue" and "'Tis a Pity" are tone setters in the wake of David's passing. Uptempo and jazzy, they guide the album into a blended light and dark tonal space and, despite their lyrical content, become occasional rays of sunlight that keep the album from collapsing into the decay that surrounds "Blackstar" and "Lazarus." Because David Bowie, even at his worst, was more than decay.
"Girl Loves Me" strikes me as a ballad of love, confusion, and a drive to reclaim time that's simply slipping away. Though I can't claim to begin to understand the lion's share of its lyrics, there's a definite saccharine taste to the way Bowie articulates "viddy viddy at the cheena," though the overall flavor of the song is unquestionably enigmatic, with the squeak of fear at the rising inflection at the end of each "Where the fuck did Monday go?" Time and joy were slipping away. Even David Bowie was afraid in the shadow of death.
But through that fear, we got "Dollar Days," the song of struggle, "falling down," "trying to" and "dying to," married to the bluesy lament of "I Can't Give Everything Away." At the end, Bowie was still trying to find more of himself to give. And at the end, maybe even David Bowie
wanted more of life, even as he was stumbling and fighting through it to complete Blackstar
Yes, when contextualized, the other half of Blackstar
portrays David Bowie as a very human person with a very human fear: death. In coming to see David Bowie the man finally portrayed by David Bowie the artist, he not only affirms our natural human hopes and fears, but realizes his own in his final hours. The artist lowers his mask and takes a bow. And the audience applauds.
Isn't there something magical about that?