I’m not gonna lie – it’s a little intimidating reviewing a David Bowie album. Partly because I don’t necessarily fancy myself a huge Bowie fan. But, I do have tremendous respect for his impact on music as we know it today – and pop culture to a larger extent. But I don’t count much of his music in my iTunes catalog. However, one of the things I hope to do going forward with this music blog is to stretch myself and intentionally seek out and review music from artists I wouldn’t normally encounter (your emailed suggestions for that are always welcome, by the way).
So, here goes: Bowie’s “Blackstar,” the eight-track album that dropped a mere 48 hours before his death.
Two things are obvious with a first listen. First, his impending demise is a constant backdrop throughout. Writing songs about one’s mortality is nothing new; a few years ago Glen Campbell released the haunting “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” in advance of his Alzheimer’s setting in. The album’s title and lead track, “Blackstar,” references the name of lesser-known song by Elvis, with whom Bowie shared a birthday and revered. “When a man sees his Blackstar, he knows his time has come,” the King sang. Apparently the same applied to Bowie, and it wound up inspiring a final album.
The second obvious thing: It is nearly impossible to categorize his music on this album. Far removed from his pop/rock days, Bowie plunges head-first into the experimental. Not a lot of electronica, though. In fact, Bowie’s affinity for sax is made clear throughout the album – sometimes a wailing solo, other times a dissonant, disconnected usage. Rhythms also contribute an important texture – more often not the standard kick/snare/hi-hat syncopation. For instance, the track “Blackstar” sounds like something off Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” album with its disjointed accents (although to be fair, it’s probably more accurate and appropriate to say that Radiohead sounds like Bowie).
Lyrically, Bowie’s words take us on a wild ride that, to be honest, is often hard to decipher. At various instances, though, Bowie drops a line or two we can grasp – and when that happens, it’s haunting. “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain,” Bowie sings on “Dollar Days,” followed by, “And fool them all again and again / It’s all gone wrong but on and on the bitter nerve ends never end / Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you / I’m trying to, I’m dying to.” Or is it “dying too”? Likewise, on the poignant “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Bowie sings over a soothing groove:
I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal sons
The blackout’s hearts with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
I can’t give everything away
I can’t give everything away
Can’t – or won’t? Bowie’s death a month ago came as somewhat of a shock, even though word had gotten out that he was not doing well. But there had been no public announcement of his declining status. We just knew he was battling cancer like millions of others around the globe. In the end, as this song states, Bowie lived and died on his terms and called the shots on how to let the world know along the way.
Mortality in the public eye is a finicky thing. The advent of social media gives any random person an opportunity, should they choose, to publicly chronicle the end of life. In Bowie’s case, “Blackstar” is a sort of self-eulogy presented before the fact. Knowing his tendency to constantly push boundaries of music, culture and sexuality, it’s likely that this is exactly the way Bowie would’ve wanted this final chapter to play out.
My 13-year-old asked if I enjoyed “Blackstar.” I couldn’t say that I did – this isn’t an album I find myself drawn to musically. But I remain fascinated by what it represents: The Starman’s final launch into the journey beyond, on his terms. What’s not to be fascinated by that?
When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or teaching Old and New Testament at his local community college, or blogging, or running and swimming and practicing yoga, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.