“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.” So sings David Bowie on “Lazarus”, one of seven dauntingly brilliant and unfathomably poignant tracks from what was to be his final album. Let’s get one thing straight from the start here, amid the incredible worldwide emotional response to Bowie’s death, and indeed, my own sense of loss as a life-long Bowie fan, it could be difficult to remain objective when reviewing “Blackstar”. Yet I feel confident in proclaiming this album to be one of Bowie’s best, certainly in the last thirty years or so. A fitting end for a musical genius who has journeyed, innovated and inspired more than most could ever dream of doing. I was blown away on first listen, and the more I listen, the better it gets. Bowie fans haven’t had much to engage with in the last decade, until the surprise release of “The Next Day”, a very welcome return to form, though perhaps not the classic we wanted it to be. There was also the excellent 2014 release “Subterranean- New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin” by drummer Dylan Howe, an incredibly good jazz/rock reinterpretation of Bowie’s Berlin era music which helped fill the void for this Bowie aficionado, much more so than previous efforts by the likes of Philip Glass, not without merit though that may be. But “Blackstar” is a different beast altogether. It shines in a way that all of Bowie’s best efforts always have- with a fierce originality that is both musically engaging, yet also dripping with elements of avant-garde oddities and quirkiness. And then of course, we add in the emotional element, one that the listener can genuinely hear and feel throughout this recording, and we have Bowie’s final masterpiece.
To my mind, many (though certainly not all) of Bowie’s finest moments have come when he’s been collaborating with musicians capable of operating on a similar level of thought and musicianship. The obvious example of an artist influencing and working together with Bowie would of course be Brian Eno. And as far as Bowie working with a “shit hot” band of musicians, I’d suggest looking no further than the Station to Station tour in the 70’s. And it is the collaborations and musical inventiveness that once again stand out on this release. Maria Schneider, (V2?) big band leader and jazz writer, arranger, co-wrote some of the music, and it is indeed some of the finest, cutting-edge jazz musicians making their mark in the early stages of the 21st century, that help make this album what it is. This is definitely not a jazz album, but what Bowie does so well is to utilise the skills of his chosen band to the fullest, even writing with this in mind. It goes without saying that Bowie has written an album of incredible words and music here, and with long time producer Tony Visconti, all the wondrous elements have come together perfectly to create a sound of sheer brilliance, the performances from all the musicians involved helping make this album what it is. From the moment Bowie sat down in a New York jazz club to watch drummer Mark Guiliana perform, the seed had been planted. Even before that, Bowie had been working with Maria Schneider and had had saxophonist Donny McCaslin in mind when writing the incredible “Tis a pity she was a whore.” Shortly after Bowie’s death, Maria Schneider wrote; “David Bowie’s fearlessness at headlong swan-diving into the unknown was astounding, inspiring and freeing. To experience that daring creative spirit first hand was our magic and a great gift. Even at 68, his true passion for creativity and daring artistry, brought him to yet another new edge. He created a universe all of his own”. Donny McCaslin also commented; “Working with David Bowie was a life-changing experience for me and a gift beyond measure. He was always gracious, generous and funny. I will always be inspired by him.” One can only imagine what it must have been like to have been involved in the making of this album, oh to have been a fly on the wall! Similar accolades from Mark Guiliana, keyboardist Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebvre also followed, all showing a heart-warming sincerity and genuine sense of loss.
“Blackstar” opens with the title track, just shy of ten minutes in length, it being a suitably other-worldly piece of musical theatre. As with much of the album, it employs that rare gift of musicality where a tune is performed in a way that it never quite lets the listener be at ease. There’s always something unexpected, whether it be a change of pace, a small moment of beauty, a touching line of words, or a twist in the direction and sound of the song. Stunning production and arrangements just add to the timeless feel of the track. The aforementioned “Tis a pity she was a whore” utilises keyboards and saxophone to gradually wind up and build piece by piece with unnerving brilliance. The arrangements and sound created is on a par with anything Bowie has conceived in former glories. “Lazarus” grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. Incredible songwriting, and just so devastatingly poignant given the timing of the album’s release. Another fine example of a master at work. “Sue (Or in a season of crime)” is shorter and much more vitally hard edged than last year’s big band version. It’s much more immediate and uncompromising in its boldness. “Girl loves me” harks back to the Bowie strangeness that sums up his fearlessness in writing and recording. Quite remarkable. “Dollar Days” reminded me, purely from a production point of view, of Bowie’s 70’s Classic “Wild is the wind”. It also engages the listener in its sweeping soundscape and emotive performance from the singer. There’s such a strong pull and emotional connection as he sings; “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me…” The final track, a roller coaster of songwriting mastery and soulful eloquence, is the hauntingly beautiful “I can’t give everything away”. To this I would like to say, Mr David Jones, you did give it all away, you gave us everything. You gave all you could and for this we will be eternally grateful.
The final words have to go to Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long time producer and friend, who hours after Bowie’s final transformation wrote; “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us.”