David Bowie Blackstar

[Columbia; 2016]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: history, now
Others: David Jones, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane

I’m faced with two impossibilities: one, the death of David Bowie, and two, the act of critiquing Bowie’s portentous last album post-mortem. If I were feeling more whimsical, I’d list Blackstar as Bowie’s last magic trick, a memorial to himself, scheduled almost precisely in time with his passing. But to call this magic would be to diminish both the sadness of this loss and his knack for reinvention. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clark, what looked like magic was in this case sufficiently advanced business acumen. Aside from his early troubadour work and his few late-90s/early-00s material, Bowie was always a stylistic changeling, a literal avant-garde, and it’s fitting that he found his way ahead of the curve once again with Blackstar.

Other writers have already autopsied the lyrics of Blackstar, so if you’re looking for textual confirmation that Bowie was crooning against the sword of Damocles, well, duh. But prescience, or dogged perseverance for that matter, doesn’t necessarily equate to artistic triumph: I recall with some bitterness how rapturously The Wind, Warren Zevon’s maudlin final record, was received, when it felt to me too sentimental and comforting, more like a musical version of a Mitch Albom novel than a work of estimable insight, or at least one favorably comparable with his halcyon work. I mean, I get it; death is scary, and we’re all staring it down from variable distances. What makes Blackstar so praiseworthy isn’t that the artist was dealing with him own impending mortality, but how deftly he dealt with it.

A couple months ago, when the teaser for the title track made its way onto YouTube, I was quick to make lazy, trite comments about Bowie getting around to ripping off Scott Walker, which was tantamount to critiquing a movie based on a trailer. Maybe I was still recoiling from the thought of 2013’s disappointing, derivative, and altogether overpraised The Next Day — in my mind, one of Bowie’s weakest records. And while Blackstar features a fair amount of indulgence, especially on the aforementioned 10-minute-long title track, it never feels labored, and the music never even once imitates the nightmarish soundscapes of Scott Walker. Instead, these seven songs levitate outside Bowie’s whole catalog with several measures of detachment, but looking inward all the while. “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” for example, plays almost like a New Orleans jazz funeral rendition of “Jean Genie,” while “Girl Loves Me,” with its dub vocals and John Bonham-like drumming, could pass as an outtake from Bowie’s maximalist Nile Rodgers era, were it not for the slightly-too-lucid digital production. There are Easter eggs too, hints of nearly every era: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust’s spaceman grandstanding, Hunky Dory’s biergarten torch songs, Young American’s nouveau-retro vamps, Let’s Dance’s post-apocalyptic disco, and, perhaps most crucially of all, Earthling’s transhumanist aspirations.

Ultimately, death takes the reins that steer a person’s legacy, but with Blackstar, Bowie valiantly attempted to put lie to that reality. Of course, he didn’t succeed, but really how could he? Maybe Lazarus, the official off-Broadway musical retrospective was a hedging of bets — that, I cannot know; what I do know is that every song on Blackstar is essential, something that’s arguable even for Bowie’s best albums, Low notwithstanding. Bowie was always more of a singles artist, and yet, the first album that doesn’t bear his likeness on the cover is also his most consistent in decades. I’m still too close to my feelings to reasonably make such proclamations, and I can’t fathom a way that these songs will outlast his 70s and 80s classics — who really wishes to remember the dead in their dying? — but that isn’t really the point. Bowie wasn’t playing to new fans with Blackstar. Which pop stars have lived or even remained relevant long enough to commemorate their own deaths in song? And who has done it so cannily, with as much shimmer, spunk, and rude humor, with as much life as Bowie did here? The album may or may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a heartbreaker, a miracle. Most importantly, it’s a lively, smartly constructed, and unsentimental collection of pop songs.

Blackstar closes with “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” as overblown and neon-marqueed a song as he’s written. A pop star to the last, Bowie knew that the best way to advertise his legacy was to end not only with a showstopper, but on a literal high-note.

Links: David Bowie - Columbia

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