Note: The first two paragraphs or so were written just hours before the news of David Bowie’s passing broke. The original plan was to have this review up by Monday. Given that some of this has already been written, I will write this review as if I finished it the day before. At the end, I will add some afterthoughts about this being Bowie’s swan song and what that means.
At 69 years old, David Bowie has had a long and successful career. Throughout his career, Bowie has been a chameleon as he’s able to reinvent himself almost effortlessly every few years. His latest album, Blackstar, is no exception. Released almost three years after The Next Day, Blackstar is an experimental jazz album. With seven tracks to offer, Bowie presents us with another impressive album.
The album opens with the epic nine minute title track. The song sets the tone for the entire album: it’s going to be a dark and haunting jazzy ride. The title track could be split into two parts, with the first part being an electronic-synthpop tune and the second part being a down-right funky number. Of the seven songs on here, this is my personal favorite as it is wonderfully mysterious and mystic. As mentioned before, Blackstar is jazzy affair. Some of the songs on here are wild. This includes the sax-driven “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and the chaotic dizziness of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” The former is a mildly amusing tune as Bowie laments “Man, she punched me like a dude” while the latter has Bowie’s backing band in fine form.
Looking for something easier to listen to? Try the loungey post-punk romp (a la Joy Division) “Lazarus.” It’s simply chilling, with Bowie’s vocals backed up droning saxophones and distorted guitars. The song is well written and of the songs on here, Bowie voice sounds the best on here. Another personal favorite: the eerie “Girl Loves Me,” which is lead by a plodding bass line while Bowie wonders “Where the f*ck did Monday go?” While Blackstar is a wild jazz album, it ends with two rather conventional songs. “Dollar Days” is a somber yet gentle track that features some sweet acoustic work and yet more saxophones. The album’s synth-riddled closer, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” almost nears adult contemporary territory while still sounding like an indie Bowie track. It’s a solid way to end the album as Bowie’s vocals are as smooth as the saxophone and harmonica that wail in the background.
Overall, Blackstar is a great album from David Bowie. However, I still prefer The Next Day as it’s more diverse in musical styles. Still, Blackstar is a shorter album- clocking in at some 40 minutes- which I can appreciate. With a little over 20 studio albums in Bowie’s discography, Blackstar is nice addition to a brilliant career.
Afterthoughts: David Bowie died two days after the release of Blackstar, which officially makes it his last album. As a swan song, people are going to look at this a little differently. Now knowing that Bowie was sick with cancer for 18 months, it is a haunting last album. Producer Tony Visconti has said that Blackstar was to serve as Bowie’s “parting gift.” Considering how this album’s last song is titled “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” I’d say this is one hell of a parting gift.
Rest in peace, Mr. Bowie.
Update (written 1/24/16): After listening to this for the first time since Bowie's passing AND marathoning everything I own by him, I think I can safely say that I like Blackstar more than The Next Day. While I still like The Next Day, it's a very safe album. Having not released an album in ten years, Bowie decided to take the nostalgic route and make songs that we would like (examples: Where Are We Now being connected to Heroes and Valentine's Day being a throwback to the glam era). Since Bowie figured this would probably be his last album, he went all out with this experimental jazz album with a dark overtone. I like both albums but Blackstar is the better album in my opinion.