‘Blackstar’ is an elegy, Bowie’s self-made epitaph to his own life that spends little time languishing in reflection, and instead creates a distinct and indeed exciting sound for this final album.
It’s fitting that for ‘Blacksta, Bowie, a man who’s sound has continually evolved over the course of his career, continues his run all the way to here, providing a jazz inspired and occult infused set of tracks here. While these influences are obvious, they’re subdued in the mix, often feeling as if we’re hearing much of the instrumentation through a fog. The audience becomes separated from this world that is engulfing Bowie’s lyrics, which come through fiercely on most tracks.
His aging voice holds a rasp and harshness, which seems to have informed the track design, the instrumentation reflecting this new gravel to his voice. Rather than trying to recapture those smooth tones of his younger albums, here tracks like ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ and ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ fully embrace the rougher tone his voice contains providing the most ‘rock’ tracks of ‘Blackstar’. Filled with violent sampled hisses and discordant guitar and sax, they create malevolent, heated pieces that capture some of that anger that Bowie has with the fate that has been left to him.
“I kissed your face, I touched your face, Sue, goodbye” Bowie sings against aggressive guitar cords on ‘Sue’, or ‘Where the fuck did Monday go?” repeated on ‘Girl Loves Me’.
But the influence of free jazz comes most clearly on ‘Blackstar’s most well known tracks, ‘Lazarus’ and the titular ‘Blackstar’. ‘Blackstar’, the albums opening track, is a ten minute occult laden mixture of sounds with a diversity of distinct aspects that each could be treated as its own song. The tracks opening minutes, with its experimental sax and strings provide a canvas for Bowie’s effects leaden vocal work that create a supernatural setting for this imagery of death that permeates the whole track, and the album as a whole.
Whereas ‘Blackstar’s second half, while equally macabre, is lighter musically, a self-referential set of rhymes with a softer baseline and drums that create a mystic feel, Bowie moving to the light after ‘Blackstar’s black magic opening. The two halves complement each other, leaving a track that doesn’t overstay itself despite is runtime.
‘Lazarus’ is where Bowie gives us his final persona, and one that could prove one of his most enduring. It’s a gorgeous track, and the highlight of the album. It’s the quietest track on ‘Blackstar’, and the most affecting, with a sombre leading guitar that carries us through the song along with its straining, muted saxophone. ‘Lazarus’ is where Bowie most openly talks about his life and its end, and is the thematic heart of the album. Its lyrics are simple, but honest.
It, and its accompanying music video, strike that same chord that can be found in Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’. They show an artist’s reflection at the end of their life that’s lifted with by the genuine emotion it is sung with. The instrumentation here is gorgeously layered in and creates the most coherent and concentrated atmosphere the album provides.
‘Blackstar’s final two tracks, ‘Dollar Days’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ feel like the conclusion that they are. ‘Dollar Days’ classic jazz style is a comparatively simple track against the rest of the album, with a sense of longing for much of it, it’s a straightforward, solid track, but nothing that stands out amongst the rest of the album.
But in its finale (‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’) ‘Blackstar’, with its sweeping strings and wistful harmonica, we’re given Bowie’s last word. As much as ‘Blackstar’ is about Bowie facing his death, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is Bowie looking at his life, holding a reflective feeling that is matched only by its unexpected cheer, and changes the tone of the final minutes of the album with a song that’s upbeat and enjoyable.
‘Blackstar’ then is a fitting finale for an artist who has re-imagined and re-defined himself throughout his career, by continuing to do so even here, and providing an album that is only made better for it.