Blackstar, David Bowie (8 Jan 1947 – 10 Jan 2016)
This is my review of David Bowie’s Blackstar. It was written on what turned out to be the day he died of liver cancer at age 69.
Unlike many, I was a late arrival to the fandom. Coming from a classical tradition, what I heard was a highly theatrical voice that was more like screaming than singing, and songs that were weird rather than genuinely interesting. It wasn’t until 2002’s Heathen that I began to understand the Bowie mystique.
For me, Bowie “found” his voice with the mega-selling Let’s Dance in the early eighties. But it wasn’t till the nineties that I feel his songs took on true depth beyond the ordinary pop/rock canon, though by then many felt his greatest work was behind him. I strongly disagreed.
My condolences to all his fans, old and new.
A new year, a new album by David Bowie. There aren’t a lot of artists who truly excite me to the degree that I rush out to buy their latest offerings. Bowie is one of them.
By the album’s third track I was in love with it. By the end, I was ecstatic, that word that pianist Glenn Gould used to describe a particular trance-like state that greatness and complete absorption in art can induce.
Released this month on his sixty-ninth birthday, Blackstar finds Bowie’s theatrical voice somewhat diminished, both by time and a heart attack more than a decade ago. Wisely, he uses it to his credit. If anything, this is a complex ballet for saxophone and vocals. Its themes and tones weave a seductive blanket of sound that saturates the overall design.
There are no jarring moments, no strident notes. All is smooth, the elements interwoven intuitively in this mesmeric sound universe where we encounter the unexpected again and again.
As usual, Bowie’s lyrics are opaque, resisting easy interpretation. At times they have the ritualistic power of a spirit raising ceremony. They are incantatory rather than revelatory.
There are a handful of albums that achieve a stand-alone greatness with their intensity, their overall design and execution. For me they are Laurie Anderson’s Bright Red, Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, and the Beatles’ Sgt Peppers. You will have your own list, no doubt. (My expanded list might include Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Oh Mercy. I would even throw in Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Archie Shepp and Dollar Brand’s Duet, and Tonu Karljuste’s Arvo Pärt: Te Deum.)
These are collections that achieve a sort of apotheosis and break through into something new with the totality of their vision. Carefully executed and built up, song by song and sound by sound, Blackstar is one of them.
To my mind, Bowie has achieved this just once before, in his groundbreaking Outside. (You may have other favourites. I never lost a moment’s sleep pondering Ziggy Stardust’s rise and fall or worrying whether Major Tom was ever going to make it back to earth.)
With his ceaseless explorations, David Bowie has shifted us into a new paradigm for rock music that will continue to reverberate and affect us for some time to come.
I can’t wait to see what the next ten years hold.
Jeffrey Round is the author of nine novels, including the Lambda Award-winning Lake On The Mountain, and a poetry collection, In the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci. His first two books, A Cage of Bones and The P-town Murders, were listed on AfterElton’s Top 50 Greatest Gay Books. He is a founding member of the Naked Heart Festival of Words.
Tags: A Writer's Half-Life
, Bob Dylan
, David Bowie
, Jeffrey Round
, Jimi Hendrix
, Joni Mitchell
, Let's Dance
, Major Tom
, Miles Davis
, Ziggy Stardust