When David Bowie suddenly rushed back onto the scene with his surprise album The Next Day in 2013, I was elated. He’s long been one of my favorite artists — ever since his 1997 album Earthling — and I could not have been more pleased with the album. It was dark, edgy and experimental, an accumulation of everything I’ve ever loved about the man’s music. Blackstar basically picks up where The Next Day left off; it could have been called The Next Next Day and it would have made perfect sense.
As the story begins, Bowie’s friend, a jazz bandleader named Maria Schneider, invited him to check out a headliner at 55 Bar, a quartet featuring saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Their music was very off the cuff, not conforming to any traditional jazz rules. After their set, Bowie left without saying a word. It was only ten days later that McCaslin received an e-mail from Bowie, asking him and his drummer, Mark Guiliana, to come play with him in the studio. The result was “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” which Bowie initially placed on the 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed, though he uses it here as well.
It wasn’t until a year ago, last January, when Bowie summoned McCaslin and his whole band to work on his next album. Bowie was listening to a lot of Kendrik Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and seemingly admired the fact that Lamar didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop album. Like Lamar, Bowie wanted to experiment. So, he unleashed ideas and the band responded with whatever came to mind and from there they crafted the songs that make up Blackstar.
In my review of The Next Day, I stated that “the entire album just begs to be listened to at night, sitting in the dark with mere candlelight.” This is something that definitely holds true with Blackstar, as all of its seven songs feel like they were recorded in the dark and intended to be listened to in it, the lyrics of the title track even mentioning “a solitary candle.”
The album opens with the title track, “★,” which is just four seconds shy of 10 minutes, and sounds ominous from the get go. The experimental song sounds even creepier if you watch the David Lynch-esque video directed by John Renck. Yet, somehow, the song makes more sense, and flows better, when heard as the video’s soundtrack. That said, the video only serves to render the subject matter even more confusing. A dead astronaut with jewels in his skull, the sun covered by the moon, and human scarecrows are just a few of the things you see there. The only thing I could deduce is that it takes place on another planet or in the future. If I had to guess what the song itself is about, it would seem that the lyrics are about rescuing someone from somewhere grim (“in the villa of Ormen”) as Bowie sings, “I can’t answer why / Just go with me / I’m-a take you home.” Rolling Stone’s review states that, according to McCaslin, who plays some enthralling sax here, the song is “about ISIS.”
According to Blackstar’s producer, Tony Visconti, “The goal was to avoid rock & roll.” To that end, I think they’ve mostly succeeded. While many of the album’s tracks do have the edginess of rock songs, they’re ultimately very experimental, jazz-infused pop, if not avant-garde. Although, with its sonorous drums, you could argue that “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is a fine rock gem. McCaslin’s sax alone is a beast to be reckoned with here, jumping out at you, grabbing you by the neck, blowing the ceiling off, commanding your full attention. If that’s not rock ‘n’ roll sax playing, I don’t know what is.
“Lazarus” sounds like it’s just plain jazz during most of it and it’s one of the album’s most accessible tracks. According to Genius, the lyrics are about Bowie showing us how he feels like he’s “dead already metaphorically,” just being alive in the physical world. In the Bible, Lazarus dies and is brought back to life four days later by Jesus Christ, so perhaps Bowie felt like he was dead when he wasn’t making music during the period before The Next Day and now that he’s back he feels resurrected.
The above-mentioned “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” is another song that has a rock vibe with its little, repetitious guitar groove. The percussion feels more jazzy though. One thing that makes the song stand out is the fact that Bowie sounds optimistic here, singing, “Sue / The clinic called / The x-ray’s fine.” That would seem to be the only thing he’s sure of, however, as one line has him apparently referring to Sue as a virgin and later he complains: “Why too dark to speak the words / For I know that you have a son / Oh, folly, Sue.” The later part of the song has shades of the Trent Reznor remix of Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” with its persistent percussion and sharp guitars.
If one song on Blackstar was directly influenced by Kendrick Lamar’s album I believe it’s “Girl Loves Me,” which has hip-hop flavored beats and finds Bowie singing lyrics that could easily be turned into a rap song: “Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say / Party up, set ground on Tuesday / Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday.” But if there’s one lyric that sticks in your head after the song is over it’s, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Bowie ponders that several times throughout the track. Perhaps it’s a tale about someone who spent the weekend having lots of sex and lost track of the days?
The one song Bowie composed in the studio is the ballad “Dollar Days.” According to McCaslin’s talk with Rolling Stone, “David just picked up a guitar. He had this little idea, and we just learned it right there in the studio. “I’m trying to / I’m dying too,” Bowie sings repeatedly, his voice sounding apologetic and full of regret. That said, his vocals sound fabulous, this being one of the best produced songs on the album. He is slightly upstaged by the killer sax though.
The album closes with “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which feels like the most personal song for Bowie on Blackstar. With faint sax in the background and snappy percussion, he sings “I can’t give everything / I can’t give everything / Away.” One verse even goes, “Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.” Read into that what you want. And that’s part of the album’s charm, how it feeds you fragments of stories and almost random ideas, letting your mind interpret the songs however you see fit. Even if you hate the album, you have to admire it for that. I’m sure some would say that you shouldn’t reward vagueness but that’s always been part of Bowie’s appeal. To me, his songs are like David Lynch movies, especially those that fuck with your head like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. Perhaps different parts of the songs on Blackstar are meant to fit together and paint a certain image, to tell a certain story, but if that’s the case I haven’t figured it out yet. Just like I still can’t wrap my head around those brilliant David Lynch films. The way they make you wonder is part of their charm and why they linger in your mind long after you’ve seen them. Blackstar might be abstract and experimental, and even weird, but it’s a work of art that makes you think and that’s what most artists strive to create. No other popular artist today could create an album quite like this. An album this brilliant. An album this Bowie.