Saying No But Meaning Yes, Bluebirds & Survival Sex: BLACKSTAR Reviewed
By Shaun A. Lawton
What is Blackstar? It’s a 1960 song by Elvis Presley: “Every man has a black star, a black star over his shoulder, and when a man sees his black star, he knows his time, his time has come.” It turns out David Bowie and Elvis Presley not only share the same birthday (January 8) but they were also drinking buddies. So we have a pretty good idea why Bowie decided on the title Blackstar for his swan song. Incidentally, the album’s title is represented by the symbol of a black star, like this: ★
I’ve been a fan for a few decades when a long-ago girlfriend turned me on to Bowie and the Velvet Underground, back in the early eighties. Since those halcyon days my obsession with their music has only grown and evolved to become an essential part of me. As soon as I was able to, I placed my preorder for the limited clear vinyl edition of the album ★, which looks like this in its shrink-wrapped package:
Strangely enough, when the album dropped on Friday, January 8, 2016 (Bowie’s 69th birthday) my preorder had yet to arrive. I was really looking forward to listening to it on his birthday. When that weekend drew to a close without the album arriving, I went to bed rather early on Sunday night, January 10 (without having heard the breaking news of Bowie’s demise).
I’ll never forget the text I received from my brother upon waking early Monday morning to go to work. It read: David Bowie has returned to the stars. I kept reading it over and over, half disbelieving. It slowly dawned on me that . . . he was gone from our solar system. I had zero interest in verifying this by searching online at that moment. All I needed was a cup of coffee. Where the fuck did Monday go?
Later that afternoon, upon returning home, I found the coveted package had arrived. There it was, leaning against my front doorstep. Little did I know then that my first listen to the album ★ would end up bordering on a religious experience. One reason for this was the decision I made to wait until nighttime. I insisted we shut off every light source in the house. Everything went black. I lit a solitary candle in honor of David’s passing. This would turn out to be an uncanny coincidence. (That’s because during the opening ten-minute long title track, Bowie begins the album intoning “In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen, stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah, in the center of it all, your eyes . . . ”)
The mysterious beauty of the undulating candle flame casting distorted shadows about the living room complemented the music and helped send us who were listening into a trance. Whether you’re already familiar with the album or have yet to hear it for the first time, I can’t stress enough how rewarding it is to wait until nightfall, switch off all the lights in your home, and light one single candle before you push PLAY or let the diamond needle drop into the vinyl groove. The entire album will catapult you into an extraordinary audial experience, trust me.
So what is ★? It’s a postmodern amalgamation of avant garde jazzmanship stirred into a potent rallying call for transgressive artistry worldwide. It’s a dazzling shot fired from a sonic flare gun as a challenge to the trigger generations. All seven songs push the envelope of the commercial mainstream past the shattering point. Each one does so in its own way. Some by virtue of their musical conception and length. Others for their savage lyrical attacks which leave virtually no stone in our frigid culture unturned. A strategically dropped F-bomb in Girl Loves Me is just the tip of the iceberg, never mind that it’s sung in Nadsat (more on this later).
Hearing it for the first time my senses were so sharpened I swear I thought I caught subtle cues and references all over the map, from hints at certain modern blind pariahs to allusions of lost jaded sirens. “I was born upside down . . . I was born the wrong way round . . . We’re all Blackstars . . . We’re not new stars . . . We’re not wandering stars . . . Man she punched me like a dude. ‘Tis a pity she was a whore. ‘Tis my fate I suppose. That was patrol. That was patrol. This is war. ‘Tis a pity she was a whore . . . Man I’m so high it makes my brain whirl. Dropped my cell phone down below . . . Ain’t that just like me.”
Here’s an album crafted with certain crucial elements from classic records of the past. One twelve inch vinyl platter. Seven cuts from start to finish. I’m still marveling that Bowie managed to consecrate this album to eternity on his sixty-ninth birthday just two days before he died. I heard recently from someone that if you make it past your sixty-ninth, you gain another twelve years of life. So much for that bullshit. Major Tom has taken his exit through the Tannhauser Gate, leaving us all stranded behind shell-shocked, our tears lost in rain.
There’s something too canny in the way everything lines up on this album. (Hold on, Side 1 just ended. I’ve got to go flip the record over now and listen to Side 2 again.) This new take of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) is truly a jump forward into progressive fusion that blends and twists into a sinister symphony awash in creepy beats, stirring up a steady down-tempo rhythm, and flowing on in weird and inventive ways. The original version of this song (released the year before as a limited edition 10″ on Record Store Day) is a modest exercise in sophisticated noir jazz, all shadows and fog and stringed instruments. On the album proper it sounds like rock’n’roll beamed in from outer space by a radio transmission from a distant exoplanet.
I could listen to the music on this album forever. Bowie’s crooned narration on Sue borderlines on malevolent intent and blurs the murderous with a lovelorn longing I don’t think I’ve ever heard elsewhere. When I first listened to the beginning of Girl Loves Me, I could not believe my ears. A song sung in Nadsat: how about that. Where the fuck did Monday go? Talk about horrorshow.
So let’s dive into the album and examine some of its subtext, shall we? The following is an overview of sides one and two, along with observations about the larger context of Bowie’s ambition to be a playwright and his status as an actor. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.
The solemn, undulating tones from the music at the onset of the epic ten-minute title track from David Bowie’s Swan Song ★ really propel the listener into the darker undercurrents of a futuristic world. A world which is apparently the ragged remnants of our own, before the last of its evidence is obliterated off the face of the Earth. Our enigmatic superstar carves out his final alluring persona, himself really, portrayed as both blind, stumbling pariah (“button-eyes”) and aging dark priest of the sect of a cult signified by the image of a black star embossed on the cover of their bible.
In short, Bowie has pulled off the remarkably deft stunt of immortalizing himself in the eyes of popular culture by realizing his lifelong dream of writing a play to be performed on Broadway. That dream came to fruition with the play Lazarus, which ran from December 7, 2015 to December 20, 2016, and which garnered some very good reviews. That it would be loosely based after the persona he developed as an actor in the lead role filming Nicholas Roeg’s film adaptation of Walter Tevis’s science fiction novel The Man Who Fell To Earth was an unpredictable maneuver, as was casting Michael C. Hall (famous for playing the titular role of the serial-killer slaying Dexter) in the lead part. I think it’s safe to assume David knew he was already too old to play the role.
Cutting to the chase, the real question remains: how good is this final studio album, actually? I’m all too happy (and still a little stunned) to say that I think it ranks among the greatest albums he ever released. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why his band delivers a pitch perfect performance of all seven songs except by listening to it. Suffice it to say they find a way to balance contrasts for an alternately loose and tight execution, piloted by the sure expertise of the legendary frontman.
★ became the exceptional experimental follow up to 2013’s excellent return to form The Next Day, where David proved he was still the boss after a ten year absence from the scene. But with this followup, I do not believe it’s possible to overstate just how monumental an album Bowie has left us with to get lost in, endlessly and repeatedly, without tiring of it.
This is an album which, on the one hand, hearkens back to the good old days, when records clocked in at about 42 minutes, and usually featured no more than nine songs (five on one side, four on the flip side) and on the other hand, manages to capture a post-modern sound far ahead of its time. The album is like a study of extremes contrasted against one other. At just seven songs, the ten minute progressive intro (the keystone track at the center of it all) frames this simple set of tunes into a seamless, loosely conceptual album.
Back during the time when the Compact Disc format first allowed bands to put out albums over an hour long (often featuring sixteen tracks or more), db’s album ★ achieves far more with what appears to be much less. Yet beneath its slickly produced surface, and after repeated listens, Bowie’s final studio album proves itself to resonate richly with many unfolding rewards for the devoted listener. I think a lot of it has to do with his having allowed the musicians plenty of creative freedom in their jamming together. His faith in them exchanged for their faith in him amounts to a remarkable album that will stand the test of time.
The razor sharp lyrics here provide a constellation of meanings and are even presented graphically as such in the liner notes of the original LP, a beautiful example being the second track ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore. These seven songs are aimed and fired with the deft precision of a human cupid, each one strikes the heart in its own way.
I think it’s safe to say Bowie has challenged a new generation of artists and rockers to greater heights of aspiration with these seven songs. Bowie released many albums in his time, setting successively higher standards of musicianship and lyrical content throughout his career. With this final record ★ he sets the bar impossibly high once again, and he dares us all to reach for it.
Listening to the album for me is like being guided over twilit nocturnal waters on a sleek black ship and being taken away on a journey of discovery. The third track and popular lead-in single Lazarus has this effect on me. I picture a prow cutting through black water as it transports the listener across the first side of the record album, depositing us on the far shore of silence where we are forced to allow the implications of the lyrics to sink in.
Flipping the record over to side 2 ushers in the strident and post-modern tones of the new version of Sue (or In a Season of Crime) which has significantly evolved since its initial incarnation. Here on Bowie’s last record, this spookily narrated murder mystery gets a proper overhaul into one of the album’s heaviest and most progressive cuts.
We then segue into Girl Loves Me, the song sung in Nadsat with an unforgettably catchy refrain. (Nadsat, which roughly translated means “teen-speak,” is the invented language of author Anthony Burgess for his visionary dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange.) It’s really appropriate when you consider Bowie to be the ultimate teen idol.
The penultimate track Dollar Days amounts to the perfect Bowie tune, casually delivered. It’s nothing to see. It’s nothing to me. I really do think one of the main reasons the album is so successful must be that Bowie wasn’t domineering in the studio. One gets the impression he just let his band mates play more or less how they wanted to. There is a greater degree of free-form jazz explored by the saxophones, for instance, than what we’d become accustomed to in past studio recordings.
Speaking of those old recognizable sounds, the hauntingly familiar tones of the saxophone’s signature lead-in to the final track immediately establish that this is it: the final Bowie song. It doesn’t waste its time gathering everyone’s attention to embark on this one last trip together, sailing the wind-rippled and moon-licked waters of our late night excursion, into the uncharted tropical reefs of the human soul.
When the album is over, I can’t help but feel left behind, since Major Tom took his Gemini Spacecraft onward past the Morning Star without us. The Man Who Sold The World may not have been able to give everything away, but he certainly left us with a legacy to ponder over and enjoy for the remainder of our short lives here on this planet.
In short, David Bowie didn’t just knock his final album out of the ballpark. He sent it skyrocketing from the solar system on its way to Lord knows which far away star, leaving us all behind here dumbstruck on Earth with a dawning realization. We’re Blackstars.