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A Review of Blackstar, David Bowie's Solemn Swan Song

Two days prior to the deeply saddening passing of David Bowie on Jan. 10, on his 69th birthday, fans found themselves on the receiving end of a farewell gift of sorts from Ziggy himself—Blackstar, his 25th and final album.

Image Courtesy of Tumblr.com

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Upon the album’s debut, it claimed the Number 1 position on the Billboard 200 chart, boasting an impressive 174,000 instances of pure album sales. Posthumous record sales can be a delicate subject, however, as the sorrow of a celebrity’s passing inevitably draws “sympathy listens” and forced positive reactions.

On paper, though, Blackstar seems to be a record that would likely have garnered similar praise and success regardless of Bowie’s passing as his most highly anticipated album of the past couple decades. Following a less successful stream of releases in the 1990s and early 2000s, Bowie was dangerously close to falling into a trap that was most entertainingly depicted by Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic: “Oh there he is. He hasn't released a good album since Scary Monsters and Super Creeps but good on for him for keeping on going. The grand old man! The veteran of rock! Still producing his dad rock. Well done.”

It is thus unavoidable for eager listeners to pose the important question regarding the nature of Blackstar: Will it stand true to Bowie’s propensity for the experimental and breaking boundaries, or was the icon’s final work a depression-addled piece of “dad rock?"

The answer to this question, for me, was discovered in the two tracks explored below: “Blackstar” and “Lazarus.”

 

Blackstar,” the 10-minute long title track of the project, is dark and musically complex with lyrics dripping with deathly and metaphysical imagery: “Something happened on the day he died...Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside…Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried…I’m a blackstar…” The track unfolds in distinct components, commencing with a dissonant ambient movement that seems mournful, only to later be accompanied by an aggressive drum loop and dissonant, trance-inducing vocals.

 

Lazarus” shares in these themes of death with an introspective lens, and has been viewed by many as Bowie’s farewell, written in anticipation of the persistence of his terminal condition: “Look up here, I’m in heaven…I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” The saxophone that carries the melody throughout the track is grieving and distorted, climaxing late in a baleful solo. The song’s biblical namesake reflects an intriguing idea of reincarnation in its manifestation of pure, undiluted essence of Bowie (or Ziggy’s stardust), as if he intended Blackstar to be a vehicle of his artistry after his passing.

Blackstar is an excellent album because it is genuinely new, not clinging to the past as Bowie did in 2013 with his “comeback” effort The Next Day. As such it is the incredibly commendable work of an artist who skirted the “dad rock” speed bump to produce something genuinely innovative and fresh, as he did consistently in his golden days of the 1970s, despite—or perhaps as a result of—the darkest of circumstances.

Whether or not his terminal condition is truly what drove him towards this innovation is purely speculation, yet a new attitude is immediately apparent: as the man himself warbles in “Lazarus,” “I’ve got nothing left to lose.”

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Ryan Bradley