Album Review

David Bowie - Blackstar

Released January 8, 2016
Dylan Sonderman

Most of my familiarity with the iconic David Bowie can be distilled to pretty common touchstones. I know “Ziggy Stardust”, “Space Oddity”, “I’m Afraid of Americans”, “Let’s Dance”, “The Man Who Sold the World” (although I’m honestly more familiar with the Nirvana cover), and his role as Jareth the Goblin King from the 80’s movie, Labyrinth. I also liked that he played Nikola Tesla in the 2006 film The Prestige. So when I decided to give his 26th studio album, Blackstar, a listen it wasn’t from a place of massive fandom, or even from much experience with the Englishman’s considerable back catalog.

At first, I mainly was interested in Blackstar because the credits for the album listed Ben Monder on guitar, an innovative modern jazz player who is a personal favorite of mine. The rest of the album’s personnel, with similar pedigrees, caught my interest. I thought it was finally time for me to dig further into the world of an artist I’d always admired from afar. Little did I know that he would pass away from liver cancer just two days after Blackstar’s release on January 8th, 2016 and that the album is in fact intended as a swan song.

There is a strong undercurrent of jazz throughout the album, complemented by a sheen of noir-esque vibes and keys. Great atmosphere, and a few artsy forays into avant-garde territory. Despite all that, to me the record is very listenable. The single “Lazarus” presents a creepy, haunting, farewell that provides chills and a relaxed sense of groove all at once.

Drum and bass beats, chilled-out horns, atmospheric keys, rich chord progressions, jazzy solos, Bowie’s distinctive and confident voice, evocative lyrics… what’s not to love? The songs gel well together, while not being too similar. My favorites were probably “Dollar Days”, “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)”, and the 10 minute opener, “Blackstar.”

The line “Where the fuck did Monday go?” will not leave my head. The song containing the line, “Girl Loves Me” also seems to be referencing the Nadsat teen slang of A Clockwork Orange.

Ultimately, I’d have to say I’m a big fan of this record. There’s a nice balance of the accessible and the artistic. It doesn’t feel like a “pop” album, really, but at the same time, there’s something immediately gripping about a lot of the music. It’s a bit angular, but also cool and possessing some kind of depth. The experimental compositions remind me at times of progressive groups like Porcupine Tree or Kayo Dot, with an immediate, human quality that transcends genre. It makes me want to dive into the rest of Bowie’s discography and learn more about the music he created in the past. I can’t imagine how anyone would find this album disappointing. Listen to it. Now.

What a way to go out, sir. Rest in Peace, David Bowie.