Now that we know it was intended as a farewell, David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, is inevitably difficult to talk about without talking about his death two days after its release. Obviously this was intentional, and it’s an album that deals with the approach to death quite directly in some ways. But even viewed in isolation from this context, Blackstar is an album that deserves all the attention it gets. Not a nostalgic re-tread of old territory like 2013’s The Next Day, this is an album that feels like one last genuinely vital, experimental transformation.
The ten-minute title track which opens the album begins with a melancholic opening section, featuring jittery percussion and low-level electronics, that (aside from the occasional saxophone and Bowie’s distinctive voice) wouldn’t sound out of place on a Radiohead record. This clatters to a halt four minutes in and a middle section that alternates bluesy moments with space-y psychedelic folk that feels like it evolved out of ‘Space Oddity’. Eventually this fades back into a reprise of the opening section that itself dissolves into free jazz experimentation then halts.
It’s an enigmatic and fascinating combination of styles, in some ways recalling Station to Station, but never quite sounding like it. The album’s other big single, ‘Lazarus’, is perhaps more straightforward but just as effective. This time the song builds in pretty linear fashion, a slow ballad that starts out with Bowie’s anxious lyrics interspersed with ominous, low guitar tones. The guitars give way to saxophones, and the song builds up to one of Bowie’s most stirring vocal performances on record before once again ending quietly with a discomforting instrumental section.
‘Lazarus’ is bordered on either side by a couple of songs that had already been released in different forms between The Next Day and now. Far from being mere rehashes though, both songs have been rerecorded with vigorous jazz-fusion instrumentation, and ‘Sue’ in particular is a startlingly aggressive, chaotic piece of music. It draws on the krautrock experiments of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy but turns them up to an unprecedented intensity, as well as at certain moments resembling the industrial and electronic eclecticism of his nineties output.
The following song, ‘Girl Loves Me’, is certainly the strangest thing on the album. Bowie’s yelping vocals (with lyrics written in the Nadsat language spoken by the characters of A Clockwork Orange – seemingly an endless fascination of Bowie’s) are placed on top of strange, almost horror-movie music. It’s a thoroughly discomforting listen, but its morbid fascination sticks with you.
The album closes with a pair of songs that feel like much more traditional territory, but not in a way that detracts from anything that came before. The same jazz influences that have run throughout the album pop up here too, but redirected from the meandering discomfort of the earlier tracks towards a cathartic effect. ‘Dollar Days’ swells with emotion in both its nostalgic, folksy moments and its triumphant, soaring conclusion. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ veers dangerously close to cliché but ultimately feels like a warm, heartfelt conclusion to the album.
Far from being a mere curiosity that gains interest only from its proximity to the singer’s death, then, Blackstar is instead a bold statement, a genuinely avant-garde collection of songs, and, in the sad absence of Bowie himself to continue what he started, hopefully a blueprint for his musical successors to follow.