Review Summary: David Bowie stares age straight in the face in this musically challenging late career achievement.
A music listener should cherish a band or artist that is able to turn out fantastic work late in their career. As a fan of good rock music, many of my personal favorite artists have tragically aged well beyond their so called golden years. The pioneers of grunge are all nearing their fifties, the early prog and metal guys are in their sixties, and don’t even get me started on my favorite blues musicians. The sad fact of the matter is, with age, many of these bands have experienced a significant dip in creative quality since their peak. That’s not to say that they are bad, but it seems like their glory days may be behind them. They press on, often making material that is subpar at best, and disappointing at worst.
That is why an artist that manages to stay creatively relevant into old age should be cherished. Rush’s last album certainly ranks among their career highlights, Iron Maiden’s Book of Souls contained their best song ever in the form of “Empire of the Clouds,” and there are even groups like Killing Joke and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds that almost never seemed to dip in quality at all. These successes come from a number of reasons. Some artists, like Motörhead, have a keen awareness of what they are good at and opted for consistency over advancement. Bands with lineup changes, think Black Sabbath, might try and get the favored lineup back together and hope something gels. And then there are those rare few that see age as a blessing and decide to use it to express their newer sentiments, rather than sing about something that mattered to them years ago. David Bowie is one of these.
It is important to remember that his new album, Blackstar, is a part of a very distinct chapter in Bowie’s discography. After suffering a heart attack back in 2004, it seemed like Bowie had retired from the industry. There was the occasional one award show performance here and there, but it really seemed like he was done. Paparazzi observed him living a normal life, avoiding touring, and seemingly not even thinking about making music. Then, on January 8th, 2013, his 66th birthday, Bowie surprised everybody by releasing a brand new song and announcing the impending release of a new full length album, The Next Day. The announcement shocked the music world and when the album finally dropped, it actually managed to live up to the hype. It went Number 1 just about everywhere and proved to be his best album since the early 80s.
Yet since the release of 2016’s Blackstar there is a new sense that Bowie was holding something back on The Next Day. Sure he sounded great and the songs were fantastic, but it suddenly feels like a very mild album. While a sonic improvement over his more musically simplistic albums like Ziggy Stardust, its sound paled when compared to a record like Scary Monsters or anything from the Berlin era. The songs were concise and mostly up-tempo and ideas were seldom explored in full before the next song began. It is an album with superb replay value and definitely kept the people excited for what was next, but it did leave a nagging feeling once finished.
It seems, though, that the cause of this has been found. The Next Day was an album for the fans. They had supported Bowie all his life, accepted even his most bizarre social and stylistic tendencies, and had not abandoned him even when it seemed like his music career was done. He wanted to give them something of a thank you, and that thank you came in the form of fourteen insanely catchy songs in a surprisingly fun record. Blackstar, however, is an album for the man himself. The songs are long, jazzy, and introspective and don’t rush when it comes to fully developing an idea. And in regards to what it means to his career, this is the album where Bowie faces his advanced years head on, acknowledging his elder statesman status and using it to his full advantage. He doesn’t just work with his age, he personally beats it to the ground with his bare fists and buries it alive under some of his most brilliant song arrangements in ages.
The lead single of the album is its opening title track. It is also ten minutes long. Classic Bowie. It was said that Bowie used rapper Kendrick Lamar’s ridiculously good, future classic To Pimp a Butterfly as a key influence in writing this record. While we obviously won’t witness Bowie rapping just yet, he did take note of how Kendrick stretched his songs out, ignoring conventional songs structure in favor of taking the music where it naturally ought to go next. The influence is clear as Bowie’s “Blackstar” song goes through multiple different shifts in pace and structure yet just avoids feeling forced. Beginning with a somber, repetitive verse, the song ends with a stomping beat and muddier mood.
It also seems like a good time to note that the musicianship is top notch. This is rather expected since Bowie could get just about any musician he wanted to work with, session or not. Yet instead of working with a backing band of Steven Wilson, Flea, and Daney Carey, (though how awesome would that be?), he decided to go with a lineup of veteran jazz performers instead. Particular praise goes to saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose beautiful yet unpredictable playing entices from the moment it is introduced in the first song, and drummer Mark Guiliana, whose erratic style somehow manages to properly coexist with whatever his fellow musicians are playing.
The next song is “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” which actually first saw the light as a B-Side in 2014. Nevertheless it has still been given a significant sonic overhaul. The percussion is more appropriately mixed and the jazz elements are more at the forefront. Curiously enough, the jazzy bits of the song’s A-Side, “Sue (Or Season of a Crime),” also on this record, have been significantly toned down. Yet both of these structural changes are improvements, for they make songs from an utterly confusing single fit in seamlessly with an album that they probably shouldn’t have even been tied to.
The album continues to get more introspective as it goes on. “Lazarus” is a slow burner which finds Bowie in a pensive mood as he reflects on the eccentric nature of his younger self and wonders at the scars that it may have left for him. After the brief hiccup that is “Girl Loves Me,” the album ends with two high notes, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” The former is a bit more mild and sees guitarist Ben Monder utilizing a rare opportunity to be at the forefront of the music, while the latter is rather fast moving, with Bowie’s vocals adding an accent to some great backing music that would grab a person whether Bowie was in it or not.
All in all, the success of Bowie’s return to music seems set. Not in years has he sounded so independent, so intent on making his own path. Blackstar makes it clear that not only can Bowie’s music be great even in the 21st century, but that he still has a lot to say, even in this late stage of his long and storied career. We still may never see him tour again, and this album may signify that he wants to move away from the rock music that made him famous, but that may actually be a good thing. This fascinating glimpse into the artist’s psyche will certainly be one of this year’s musical highlights, and now that Bowie has unquestionably found his footing, he can focus on whatever kind of musical endeavor he will embark on next.
Standout Tracks: “Blackstar,” “Lazarus,” “Dollar Days”
Skippable Tracks: “Girl Loves Me”
Addendum: This review was written and posted last night, only hours before David Bowie passed away after a long battle with cancer. I suppose this was an extra reason for him not to hold back on this record. Bowie’s music was a channel for the weird, a place where conventionality could be left at the door and the sounds were subject solely to the desires of their creator. For almost the entirety of his career he made the music that he wanted to make, even in an era were music was increasingly based on market appeal. RIP to one of the great original figures of rock and roll and one of the most inspiring artists of all time.