David Bowie really needs no introduction at this point. When you can’t possibly think of anyway for him to innovate any more, he’ll completely cut off interviews, proclaim himself to be a ‘Blackstar’ and sends Michael C. Hall to do his chat show performances for him. At this point, he’s less of a man, and more of an idea about how little reality matters when you’re David Bowie. And sometimes, you tend to forget the guy writes music. In the lead up to Blackstar, longtime producer Tony Visconti likened the new music to Death Grips and Kendrick Lamar, both equally innovators of their respective genres, but the comparisons are a little lazy. It felt more like a name-drop than anything, associating Bowie with acts that are carrying the torch for what Bowie is famous for. David Bowie doesn’t especially need to associate himself with any other musician at this point because he’s running his own race. We have no idea where the finish line is, but Blackstar screams another easy picking for Bowie. A art-jazz-rock fusion which seems like a natural next genre for Bowie to explore.
Two of these songs have been heard before, albeit in a different form. ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ and ‘Sue (In A Season Of Crime)’ both appeared on a single back in 2014 for another compilation album, however ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ is significantly jazzier and ‘Sue…’ is even rockier; the only track evoking Death Grips with its noisy industrial outro, but both tracks are infinitely better produced than before, fitting in with the rest of the immaculate production on Blackstar. ‘Tis A Pity…’ cuts back and forth between images of war and being ‘punched like a dude’. While it might be easy to criticise Bowie’s somewhat offensive language and comparisons, it could easily be another example of Bowie’s self-examination that takes place on Blackstar, leading on from the self-titled single and ‘Lazarus’, where he is the ‘whore’, and he ‘smote the mistress’, with the mistress being himself. Bowie, famous for his androgyny, has an inner turmoil, with different aspects of himself fighting each other. It’s a huge leap to make, but throughout Blackstar, it’s littered with ambiguous lyrics that almost wink at the listener and test them whether to take it literally, as the video director for ‘Blackstar’ did, or to read between the lines.
The experimentation runs further on songs such as ‘Girl Loves Me’, where Bowie’s lyrics get increasingly fragmented (he references a ‘Giggenbach Show’ and ‘Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad’, which is more than likely part of Bowie’s trademark cut-up method of lyric-writing) but also contributes to the dizzying thud of the song, which mostly consists of a repetitive bassline, fluttering hi-hats and swellings of strings. The orchestration throughout the record is always beautiful, never taking up a chunk of song, but sweeps in and out, much like Bowie’s vocals, which on songs like ‘Girl Loves Me’ consists of several layers of different vocals and his voice gets higher as he reaches into the upper registers for ‘Where the fuck did Monday go?’. Who would have guessed that David Bowie had to endure Mondays like the rest of us mere mortals, but it looks like he does.
‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ finishes off the album with another self-referential track. ‘Seeing more and feeling less / saying no but meaning yes’ is his criticism of the rock star lifestyle, where people want to know every detail of his life and he’s meant to enjoy experiencing the world, but he can’t feel anything. It’s almost a tragic end to Ziggy Stardust, the rock star who committed rock ‘n’ roll suicide. The track is another jazzy standard for Bowie. At seven tracks but 40 minutes, the album just about gets across everything it wants to, but it isn’t sure, like the last track, whether it wants to extend the myth of Bowie or directly address parts of Bowie’s real life that he hasn’t before. In the lyrics, there’s always a second reading of real thoughts on fame, getting old and dying, but in front of it all are oblique words. The instrumentation is spot on, but rarely surprises, which is infuriating. ‘Sue…’ mixes the album up with a faster pace and a stab at noise-rock, but mostly Blackstar consists of stop-start jazz.
Funnel recommends: Blackstar / Lazarus / Sue (In A Season Of Crime)