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Written By: - Date published: 5:56 pm, January 12th, 2016 - 15 comments
Categories: film, internet, Media, music - Tags: , , ,

“My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life.”

Well, that quote’s as a good a starting point, and finishing point, as we could hope for from David Bowie. I heard Blackstar for the first time on Sunday evening. I was looking forward to getting the vinyl copy in a couple of days. Now, while I’m still looking forward to have the physical object in my hands, it won’t be the same without the physical presence of its maker on this planet. Jarvis Cocker said it best:

“Obviously it’s a sad day that he’s died, but the fact that he managed to stay in control of that image and make another artistic statement when he was obviously ill and knew that he was dying, I think that’s incredible and it makes me feel quite happy that he stayed creative right to the end of his life. I think that can only be inspirational.”

He was always inspirational. Bowie was a driven person. He killed off Ziggy at the Hammersmith Odeon without telling his band he was going to do it. Indeed he fired the Spiders a few months later, equally brutally, the moment they no longer fitted his planned new musical direction. He repeated that formula to the very end, dropping the players who had been with him for nearly twenty years and with whom he last played live and who also made 2013’s The Next Day. Instead, for this album, he hired a relatively unknown band he saw in a New York bar.

So, maybe he wasn’t a good employer in a lot of ways, but the musicians he worked with have remained intensely loyal to him. And he saved Iggy, Lou Reed and the band Mott the Hoople, when they were all at at their lowest ebb, though he couldn’t save his equally troubled brother Terry. Bowie was all about the personal, not the political.

So, as it’s fair to say he wasn’t a political person, there isn’t going to be much Marxist analysis of his motivations in this review. The nearest he came to a political statement was a brief, coke driven flirtation with the symbolism of the blackshirts that ended with an unfortunate press photograph that made a wave to fans at Victoria Station look like a Nazi salute. If he ever voted, I haven’t a clue who for. This won’t be that kind of review.

Now that we know what Bowie knew as he was making this album, it takes on new meaning. Some of the lyrical ambiguity is lost, but it’s replaced with joy that someone could face death and defy death and redefine death as art. For me, Blackstar isn’t just the last Bowie album, it’s the final David Jones record. Now that we know he knew he was dying, the ambiguity fades to become honesty.

Much has been made in the last few hours of the meaning of the words of the seven songs, but I also take a lot from the aural clues. There are hints and nods to previous songs and previous collaborators. There are guitar frills that could be Mick Ronson or Robert Fripp, bass lines that could be Gail Ann Dorsey. There’s drumming that could be a machine … but isn’t, and percussion that should be human … and isn’t. And boy, there is a lot of saxaphone; Bowie’s first instrument as a youth.

While it’s clearly jazz drenched, it’s not really a jazz record, anymore than Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was a jazz record. It’s informed and coloured by a kind of music that generally doesn’t use words. But this isn’t Bowie wearing a mask or taking on a new persona. There’s no time for vanity or pretence on a death bed. This is essentially an anti-pop work, a rejection of the music that made him famous. And it’s great.

The opening track, Blackstar, sets the tone. Atmospheric, even elegiac in places, the lyrics, according to the album’s saxophonist Donny McCaslin are about ISIS. Certainly, there are repeated references to the ‘day of execution’. However, there is something more personal and knowing in these lines:

         ‘Something happened on the day he died
          Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
          Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried’

Those lyrics could have come from Memory of a Free Festival, 40 years ago.

The structure of the track Blackstar is also similar to his seventies songs Width of a Circle or Candidate, with distinctly different thematic parts. But it’s a delicate piece, rather than a rocker. It’s unsettling, but memorable.

Bowie then borrows a title from a 400 year old play (Tis a Pity She’s a Whore) and appears to be referring to the centenary of the First World War in some of the lyrics (That was patrol, this is the war). This is the nearest thing to a rock song on Blackstar, ending with a wailing sax that could have been from his obsession with the Philly sound on Young Americans.

The second single, Lazarus, is also soaked in jazz tinged sax and contains the line that we now know was Bowie winking at us:

          ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’.

The weirdest lyrics come in Girl Loves Me. Bowie uses Polari to make a couple of couplets that might be straight from Clockwork Orange or his own Suffragette City:

         ‘Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say Party up moodge, ninety vellocet round on Tuesday

         Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday.’

Droogie, don’t crash here.

The album progresses through various themes, quoting alienation (‘English evergreens’) and death (‘I’m dying too’). There’s contempt for the greedy in Dollar Days ( ‘Push their backs against the grain / and fool them all again and again). That may well be about the record industry itself, a business model Bowie recognised early was going to be dealt to in the digital age.

Blackstar finishes with the glorious I Can’t Give Everything Away, which is the most lyrically direct track:

‘Seeing more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes, this is all I ever meant, that’s the message that I sent.’

I Can’t Give Everything Away could easily have come from the Berlin trilogy. Indeed, it’s the album Low that this entire work most reminds me of. That’s no bad thing.

Blackstar is a wonderfully different album, the striking work of a man with nothing to lose and so much to offer. With so little time left, how could he give it all away?

So, should you buy Blackstar? Well, yeah, of course you should. If for no other reason to bookend your own love of Ziggy, or the Thin White Duke, or Thomas Jerome Newton. Or, indeed, David Robert Jones.

Whichever character first turned you on to Bowie, whichever song first sent shivers up your spine, you owe it to Bowie to get Blackstar, his last gift to you, his last wilful and testament.

You will be surprised, you will be challenged, but you won’t be disappointed.

And, please, buy the vinyl. You’ll get a digital download for free with it, but this album, this prettiest (black)star, deserves to have a tangible presence in your life. You’ll feel better for holding in your hands even if you never put the needle to the groove.

 

‘Hey babe, your hair’s alright
Hey babe, let’s go out tonight
You like me, and I like it all
We like dancing and we look divine
You love bands when they’re playing hard
You want more and you want it fast
They put you down, they say I’m wrong
You tacky thing, you put them on’

 

 

 

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15 comments on “★ ”

  1. Rae 1

    Goodbye intensely interesting man.

  2. Tiger Mountain 2

    had not bought a David Bowie record since the Berlin trilogy but for some reason and the recent “Elsewhere” site Graham Reid review, I acquired “Blackstar” yesterday morning, talk about great timing…

    I’m used to all sorts from Eno to Scott Walker in addition to my old rockers so appreciate this for the good stuff it is, and not overlong, play loud

  3. Ad 3

    Lovely review TRP.

    Of course it’s my age but I think of Freddy Mercury today. Freddy and a Spanish opera singer belted out the theme Barcelona to the Okympic opening, ending with a fiery arrow shot in a high arc to light a great wide bowl of flame. Somehow, otherwise vacuous and histrionic gestures held ideals about striving, singular direction, glory. Something anyway. Freddy was self-willed to burn and expire in the heavens like an exploding comet.

    To die, Bowie didn’t need such a high pitch. He’s aiming straight for the sun anyway.

    Perhaps Girl Loves Me simply recounts a week of mental deterioration, slipping time, stabilising a mind with a mantra about love. There’s only confusion left, convulsions, half-sentences, snatches of returning coherence. ‘Where the fuck did Monday go?’, well, same to you David.

    Blackstar the single’s video goes straight to its Thanatic heart, shutting in eyes with blindfolds. It ruminates on what may remains of humans when rediscovered In some future end-time. He pulls in the Christian crucifixion, eclipse and all, and holds up a book with a black star on the front. It’s no assertion of faith. It reminds me of the film Melancholia, where earth is swallowed and crushed. Blackstar as a single works best as a highly narrated short film, his last one to us.

    The end sequence – a death ceremony – could have been enacted by Neanderthals, neo primitives, or any of us remaining a hundred thousand years from now and holding your relatives’ skull.

    It’s not maudlin, suicidal, or raging-against-death, but it does invite it’s full sacral force.

    I’m glad he went out epic. His own death as artwork is very tight, very tidy.

    I find that way of thinking inspiring, and a great test. Probably not my place to intertwine it all so tightly, but he tells me to live like you make magic before death. He took his music and flew it straight into the sun. Tonight, that example is our single candle; tonight:
    “We can be heroes
    Just for one day”

  4. Ad 4

    Lovely writing and a very personal review.

    Of course it’s my age, but when I think of Bowie today I think of Freddy Mercury. Freddy and a Spanish opera singer belted out Barcelona to the opening of that Olympics, ending with a fiery arrow shot in a high arc to light a great wide bowl of flame. Such otherwise vacuous and histrionic symbols held just for that moment alone our projected ideals about striving, determination, and glory. Freddy was the kind of being who was always going to fire and explode comet-like in the sky.

    Bowie didn’t need that pitch. In this album he knows he’s helping us watch him fly straight into the sun.

    Girl Loves Me seems to recount a mental deterioration; slipping time, stabilizing the mind with a matra about love. There’s largely only confusion left, convulsions, half-sentences, snatches of recurring coherence. He asks ‘where the fuck did Monday go?’ Well, same to you David.

    The video to the single Blackstar goes straight for the thanatic heart, shutting out the eyes with blindfolds. It ruminates on what might be the remainder of humans when discovered in some future end-time. He pulls in Christian crucifixion imagery, complete with eclipse, but holds up a book with a black star on the front like it explains nothing. Somehow it reminds me of the movie Melancholia, where our earth is swallowed and crushed by another rogue world. Blackstar as a single works best as a short and highly narrated film – and it’s as thinly veiled an autobiography as anything inside Faces in the Water.

    The end sequence of the video – a death ceremony – could have been enacted by Neanderthals, neo-primitives, or any of us remaining a hundred thousand years from now, holding our relatives’ skull. Good and creepy.

    It’s good music that asks you to thinking about death without being maudlin, suicidal, or raging against it, and to engage it in its full sacral force.

    I’m glad he went out epic. It’s pretty daring, pretty conscious, to unify one’s own art and death and the timing of both into a single work.

    I find that way of thinking challenging and inspiring, and a great test. Definitely not my place to intertwine life and art like this. I won’t be driving straight into the black sun like this.

    But tonight, that example is our single candle;

    “We can be heroes,
    Just for one day.”

  5. Kevin 5

    Your best post TRP.

    Thank you.

    • Thanks, Kevin. It was pretty heartfelt. Bowie has been part of my life since I was a pre-teen. I found Burroughs, Lou Reed, Jean Genet etc through him at a very impressionable age. Made me the person I am today, to a large extent.

      • Tiger Mountain 5.1.1

        while not quite the same influence for me TRP, if you were the type to go against the kiwi herd in the 70s, David Bowie certainly assisted, a take on his look could be obtained at Vulcan Lane, Akld. hair stylists as I found out with my last official haircut in ’74, instant celebrity of a type I was not particularly seeking!

        his accumulated cultural impact is certainly immense

  6. Roflcopter 6

    Great review, and bang on the money…

    I remember back in 1970(ish), when I was a wee nipper, my mum and dad playing Bowie and telling me that his music was way ahead of its time… it was, and Blackstar is another work of art.

    I must admit that I didn’t really enjoy Bowie during the late 80’s, it sort of went pretty commercial for my liking…. but then again, that was Bowie during his career; able to transcend many music disciplines and to appeal to varied tastes.

    I heard Blackstar and Lazarus prior to the album release, and was totally hooked, but hearing them again now we know he passed, these songs take on whole new personas… basically he scribed his own epitaphs.

    He will be sadly missed.

    Thanks again for the great review.

  7. tinfoilhat 7

    Lovely review TRP.

    Great way to start the day.

  8. esoteric pineapples 8

    “He killed off Ziggy at the Hammersmith Odeon without telling his band he was going to do it. Indeed he fired the Spiders a few months later, equally brutally, the moment they no longer fitted his planned new musical direction.”

    Amazingly enough, there are still people who haven’t gotten over this, judging by comments I read on the Uncut magazine website a few months ago when Morrissey was praising lead guitarist Mick Ronson at the expense of Carlos Almodovar. They still think Ronson was hard done by and couldn’t understand that Bowie needed to follow his own artistic direction. Bowie would eventually have been trapped in a glam rock ghetto if he had been a lesser artist.

    I love Mick Ronson’s guitar and find it surprising that when he finally did a solo album Slaughter on Tenth Avenue in the mid-seventies, it didn’t have virtually any of the guitar sound that he had with The Spiders.

    Haven’t seen many mentions of Young Americans from people remembering Bowie with his death which I find interesting. It was hugely significant as a change in direction at the time and its key songs still get plenty of play time on the radio but after all these years, I decided a few months ago that it is not an album I really like listening to much.

    • David H 8.1

      I think Slaughter on tenth Avenue was some of Mick Ronsons best work especially the Love me Tender opening track.

      The Bowie song that still sends shivers down my spine, 40 odd years later is Rock N Roll Suicide it’s the final track on the Ziggy Stardust Album and is just so poignent.

      • It’s a stonking album, David and I still play it regularly. I understand Ronson was OK with Bowie moving on, though the other two were well miffed. The biography Starman, by Paul Trynka claims that they went on strike when they found out new pianist Mike Garson was on four times their weekly wage. Bowies manager, Tony de Fries, apparently told them they were very very replaceable. Ronson intervened and got it sorted, but the writing was on the wall.

        And esoteric p, I agree about Young Americans (and the David Live album from the same period). I was gutted because I was expexcting another Diamond Dogs, But, hey, the man knew what he was doing,

  9. Joe Jones 9

    We won’t see his like again. Thanks for the review

  10. Just one quick addendum to the post’s section about how he treated his musicians. A friend works in aged care in London. One the people she looks after is David Bowie’s aunt. On each of his aunt’s birthdays and at Xmas, a big box of goodies arrives from New York from a Mr Jones. I know it’s probably a PA or similar that organises it, but I thought it showed that he was loyal and perhaps even sentimental in some ways.

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