Published Jan 04, 2016Two years ago, David Bowie surprised us with his first studio LP in almost a decade, The Next Day.
Honestly, it was hard not to expect a masterpiece. A decade removed from 2003's Reality, it felt like the Thin White Duke could only have something incredible up his sleeve, an album of songs so urgent and brilliant that they absolutely necessitated his return to the recording studio. News of its release was so thrilling and its single "Where Are We Now?" so divine that they (almost) made us overlook the album's more obvious faults: that Bowie's heart wasn't in many of the album's tracks, that the lyrics were lacking and that, in his attempt to pay homage to the past, the songs often came across a little bit goofy ("Dancing Out in Space," anyone?).
Thus, for the release of Blackstar, our expectations were tempered. As it turns out there was no need; the album is a deeper, more affecting Bowie record despite its shorter 40-minute runtime. It's also a more consistent record that finds Bowie returning to the horn-laden sound of his 1975 Young Americans album but with 21st century malaise. Blackstar is at times ominous, at others fully despondent
Bowie embraces his age here, sounding engaged while still harkening back to the darker aspects of records like Diamond Dogs and even Space Oddity, the sound of an elder statesman embracing the past while sounding unsure about the dark future. It's a role Bowie's assumed before (on Aladdin Sane, Scary Monsters and Outside), and on Blackstar, he plays it successfully.
To give you a better idea of what to expect before Blackstar arrives on January 8 via Columbia, here is a track-by-track preview.
The first single is also the album's opener, setting the tone with jittery drums and slow, moaning sax as Bowie chants throughout the song, lending it a spiritual vibe. The maturity of the composition makes it feel like Bowie learned from the best parts of The Next Day; he sounds best when he assumes the role of dignified elder statesman, rather than evoking his younger, more addled self as he did on low points like "I'd Rather Be High" or "Dancing Out in Space."
The middle third of "Blackstar" is Bowie at his most beguiling, as beds of low, thick sax add weight to the elegant melody. Yes, it's a hint on the long side, but as an opening statement, it works nicely.
2. "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore"
The title of the second track, originally released as a B-side to the single "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" 10-inch, is a reference to John Ford's 17th century play of the same name. It's a neat little ditty, but it still feels a little like a B-side here. The manic "'Tis Pity" is more mood than melody, all propulsive drums and wild sax noodling. Bowie fans probably already have an opinion of this one; if you don't, you can hear it here.
"Lazarus" is the most promising of Blackstar's early tracks, a gorgeous, melancholy slow-burner that allows plenty of room for the simple saxophone melodies to make an emotional impression. At this point, the album begins to feel a little bit like a burned-out Young Americans, its optimism faded and its narrator devastated (not angry, however) that the world has turned out the way it has.
Bowie's restrained vocal performance adds gravitas, his naturally weathered voice complementing the stark, chugging guitar and subtle sax trills of the song's outro. Gorgeous.
4. "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)"
Another previously released track, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" is a welcome addition here. When it was released as a 10-inch in late 2014 to coincide with its inclusion on his Nothing Has Changed retrospective, it boded well for whatever Bowie was working on next; urgent, sax-driven and striking, it found Bowie back at the height of his powers.
It all starts on a positive note, propelled by pounding snares and rushing cymbals, but by the song's middle, he's crooning "Sue, goodbye." This is Blackstar's centrepiece, and given the mood and timbre, it's a fitting one.
5. "Girl Loves Me"
A slow, thumping beat and echoing vocals open "Girl Loves Me," a swaggering song with rat-a-tat snares and a distant-sounding Bowie that seemingly gets closer as the song progresses. The subdued string arrangements here make the track, adding a vulnerable, yearning sense to what is otherwise ostensibly a musical expression of braggadocio.
Bowie has always been a master of making the listener feel multiple things at once, and "Girl Loves Me" is a late testament to that; the repeated "Where the fuck did Monday go?" is seemingly both a statement of triumph and regret.
6. "Dollar Days"
"Dollar Days" is a sweet, acoustic guitar-based tune, reminiscent of Space Oddity's more folksy fare. It should feel jarring (this is a blue-eyed soul album, for the most part), but instead functions as a breath of fresh air on a busy record, a welcome return to a sound that Bowie had seemingly long forgotten. The saxophone solo a few minutes in wrangles the song back into the album's context, and beautifully so; it's tastefully done, neither overwhelmingly technical nor schmaltzy. It ends with a neat little drum break that leads into…
7. "I Can't Give Everything Away"
Blackstar's final song begins with a neat little tribute to Low in the form of the (slightly higher-pitched) harmonica part from the opening of "A New Career in a New Town," a sweet little reminder of Bowie's past that avoids verging on cloying.
"I Can't Give Everything Away" is a perfect closer, a bittersweet acknowledgement of his limitations as a human being, musician and performer that floats the listener towards the album's open-ended conclusion. The clean guitar at 3:15 lends an air of purpose and clarity that cuts through the hazy, string-laden atmosphere of the song.