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David Bowie – Blackstar


If David Bowie’s The Next Day, overall an excellent record, had a killing flaw it would be a lack of experimentation and ambition. Bowie has always been regarded as a frontiersman, working on the fringes of the avant garde and reinterpreting it for the masses without simplifying it. His career has been driven by the seemingly endless drive towards the future and the new, which lent The Next Day an unfortunate overtone. Its fourteen tracks were steeped in Bowie mythology, each one acting almost as a summation of a specific part of the man’s storied career. It felt like a swansong, the conclusion of chapter or the end of a day. Yet the record proved, that after nearly two decades of records of varying quality, the man could still write a consistently strong disc. So with the weight of his legacy signed, sealed and placed aside and any doubts over his songwriting ability assauged, it is time for Bowie to re-enter the arena of avant garde and face the future once more. Enter Blackstar, the first step into that next day.

Blackstar is a forty minute, seven track, jazzy krautrock influenced record with a ten minute opening track. So from the outset, we’re in Station to Station territory, Bowie’s 1976 masterpiece, and this is an oddly appropriate place to be. They act almost as companion pieces to one another with one of the more intriguing motifs being the idea of emotion. Station is a record very pointedly devoid of emotion as is it about the willing death of love and humanity. Blackstar on the other hand is a record very much fueled by emotionality, as evidenced in the guttural scream the concludes ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’. This is an album defined by fear and twitchy paranoia. The percussion throughout has glitchy, almost spasmodic, nature that pushes the listen to the edge of comfort. ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’, re-recorded from last year’s single and better for it, is this nightmarish trek through convulsive Aphex Twin beats, aggressive electric guitars and his anguished wails that keeps on building in intensity builds before collapsing into nothingness. While ‘Lazarus’ which has this soothing Air like bass and twinkling electric piano and is punctuated by slabs of heavily distorted electric guitar or howling saxophone, the instrument which best characterises the whole record.

That sense of unease liberates the album from the confines of a conventional song structure. By keeping the listener on the edge of their seat, Bowie makes every slight change all the more powerful. Consider the eponymous opener which, while obviously evoking Station’s title track, which manages to fit in gregorian chants, Kendrick Lamar influenced rhythms and swaggering funk within its ten minute runtime. These tonal and genre shifts throw you off kilter with every change while granting the previous movement an undiscovered impact. By never allowing the listener to become complacent, we realize how fantastic and deeply strange what we’re experiencing is. While it can be said that much of what the album does owes a clear debt to Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch, Tilt and The Drift,  those albums having touched on the same ideas, Bowie’s undeniable craftsmanship ensures that Blackstar stand tall. But what really makes the album stand out and shine is the finale.

While Walker’s later albums retain their impenetrable discordance until the final moments, Bowie lets the mood shift pretty drastically and gives the record a perfectly judged conclusion. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is a great album closer. Operating like a hybrid of his best nineties efforts, ‘Thursday’s Child’ and ‘Jump They Say’, the song sheds the anxiety and quivering of the last thirty five minutes and insteads offer a deeply melancholic reflection on what we’ve just borne witness to. It’s the ideal conclusion to the record as it cuts to the heart of the album’s central motif: once you strip away the angst, all you’re left with is misguided sadness, unspoken desires and a view of the abyss.

It’s this climax that justifies the Station to Station motif. Where that album was of a man drowning in cocaine and the shedding of humanity to become some kind of Nietzschean ubermensch, this is the selfsame figure cowering in the face of the unknown and realizing his own mortality. In the context of Bowie, the conflict of the young and the old runs as far back as Hunky Dory, but this is the first time we’ve really seen the man who told us to “make way for the homo superior” try and accept the fact that he is the one who needs to make way. His main character for the better part of a decade was as this futurist chameleon who could tap into the future and bring it back for the rest of us. But the future he sees is not one of Starmen, Young Americans or even Earthlings, but rather one that inspires fear and trembling; the inevitable nothingness. Faced its all encompassing might all he can do is shrink into the shadow of the Blackstar. Will Murphy