Monday, January 11, 2016

R.I.P. David Bowie: The Artist Leaves Us With Blackstar!

The Good: Good vocals, Engaging lyrics, Interesting musical diversity
The Bad: Short, Frequently overproduced vocals
The Basics: The final creative push from David Bowie was Blackstar and it acts, as it was intended, as a gift to Bowie's fans who understood the artist's experimental nature.

Late last night, my night took an abrupt right turn when my wife, sitting at her computer next to me, suddenly went into shock and a frantic sadness entered her voice as she told me that David Bowie appeared to be dead. The disbelief and hurt in her voice was heartwrenching. My wife is a huge fan of the works of David Bowie - so much so that the last surprise gift I gave her this year for the holidays was a Bowie-themed print from an artist she once met and when I had the print matted and framed, I made sure that it was done in such a way that we would be able to remove the glass to have Bowie sign it when we finally met him. Bowie was one of only two celebrities my wife ever gushed about or felt a connection with from her childhood. Following on the heels of Robin Williams dying barely more than a year ago, and getting a tribute in my review of The Fisher King (that's here!), my wife has had a rough time with her role models and her own bucket list has taken a real kick.

David Bowie has, indeed, died, just days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album, Blackstar. Blackstar was released so quietly that my die-hard fan wife did not know of its existence until news started pouring in about Bowie's death (good job with the advance press, eight David Bowie Facebook pages she follows!). The reason Blackstar and Bowie's death have been so inextricably linked is that it seems Bowie knew of his impending death and created the album accordingly. Now that Bowie has died, his co-producer on Blackstar, Tony Visconti, has been quoted confirming that and, given how effectively Bowie hid his medical deterioration from all but his inner circle, it seems likely to be true.

Blackstar, then, is the final experiment from an artist who was committed to being an artist more than a pop icon, a musician, or a rock god. While the pre-death press universally praised Blackstar and noted how far it pushed the envelope for David Bowie, those articles appear to be largely written by people who ignored Bowie's works from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. Yes, Blackstar is experimental and artistic, but it is not the furthest thing he has created from his peak of commercial success in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, Blackstar is a diverse collection of songs by David Bowie that is an interesting musical statement that allowed the artist to close his own book, but it is hardly a cohesive album. In fact, it is hard not to listen to Blackstar and feel like Bowie was attempting to put together a collection that showcased his diversity, more than create one final, cohesive creation. In some ways, Blackstar sounds a lot like Bowie was trying to create a collection of "lost singles" from his six decades of public life (and then adding his "goodbye" song).

With only seven songs, clocking out at 41:13, Blackstar is short and very much the work of David Bowie. Bowie wrote all seven songs and provided the lead vocals on the entire album. He also plays guitars on the tracks and was involved with the arrangements of the songs. Bowie also co-produced the album, so it is very much his intended final work.

Musically, Blackstar is all over the place, which is not a surprise for most fans of David Bowie's works. While he never goes quite as dark and edgy to the ear as he did on his collaborations with Trent Reznor, on Blackstar Bowie showcases his appreciation and abilities with various musical styles. The title track oscillates between being a hymn and a techno number; "'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore" is jazzy and "I Can't Give Everything Away" undertstates the musical accompaniment to let the voice and lyrics shine. No two songs on Blackstar sound alike and the common thread of Bowie's voice acts as a loose tether keeping the album together. That said, despite not coming together ideally as an album, the tracks on Blackstar are each interesting, engaging to the ear and entirely listenable.

Vocally, Blackstar is a blend of David Bowie's distinctive, smooth, soft vocals and production elements. He goes computerized on "Blackstar" and his voice is stripped away to honest and emotive on "Lazarus." Bowie's voice reaches comfortably to his higher registers on "Lazarus" and "I Can't Give Everything Away" and he illustrates pretty impressive lung capacity throughout the album. Blackstar is entirely clear on the vocals and show that to his last breath, Bowie could sing!

Lyrically, Blackstar is very much an artist aware of his own mortality. Bowie did not attempt to hide the album's themes of death, endings and mortality. Indeed, it is not a clever metaphor when Bowie sings "If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see / I’m dying to / Push their backs against the grain / And fool them all again and again" ("Dollar Days"). His musical protagonist is struggling to reconcile past and present and experience all he can in the time left to him. Unlike Goth songs, most of the music on Blackstar seems to celebrate the living of life and going out with purpose, rather than mourning.

Bowie seems incredibly self-referential on "Lazarus." Foreshadowing his own death, he opens with "Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now" ("Lazarus"). The song seems autobiographical with lines like "By the time I got to New York / I was living like a king / Then I used up all my money" ("Lazarus") and it makes one stop and consider the incredible life of David Bowie.

While most of the album is incredibly well-written, not all of the songs are as well-conceived and executed as "Lazarus," "Blackstar" and "I Can't Give Everything Away." Despite the incredibly catchy refrain of "Where the fuck did Monday go?" on "Girl Loves Me," much of the song is lyrically gibberish: "You viddy at the cheena / Choodesny with the red rot / Libbilubbing litso-fitso / Devotchka watch her garbles / Spatchko at the rozz-shop / Split a ded from his deng deng / Viddy viddy at the cheena." For sure, Bowie was going for a tribal sound with much of the song, but the song needs a decoder ring to figure out what he's saying (the words are from two fictional languages!). It's a musical experiment that does not work out so well.

Fortunately, though, each song on the album has its redeeming qualities and its own hook and Blackstar is a distinct end point for what Bowie wanted for his own creative vision. For sure, in coming years, listeners will be inundated with floods of unreleased tracks, alternate versions of Bowie's iconic works and albums to fill the shelves, but for the icon's own, desired, stopping point for the journey he wanted to make as an artist, Blackstar is it and it is a fitting end. The best tracks are "Lazarus" and "I Can't Give Everything Away" and the weak link is "Girl Loves Me."

For other David Bowie reviews, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Man Who Sold The World
Hunkey Dory
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
Aladdin Sane
Diamond Dogs
Christiane F. Soundtrack
Let's Dance
Labyrinth Soundtrack
Never Let Me Down
Eart hl i ng
Best Of Bowie (1 Disc version)
The Best Of Bowie (2 Disc version)
Best Of Bowie (DVD videos)
The Next Day (Deluxe Edition)


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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