Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie - Blackstar Review

[This review was written before David Bowie's passing Sunday. Having heard little of the artist himself, and just now getting into his massive discography, his death hit me in ways I'd never expect. A true legend whose impact on music can't properly be put into words, and no one will deny that. May he rest in peace up in the stars. However, this review will still judge Blackstar off its own merits, despite context of some of the album's lyrics taking a drastically different turn with the recent news.]

To preface this review I feel it’s necessary to state before the release of ‘Blackstar’ as the lead single I knew next to nothing about David Bowie. Even still, after delving a bit into his storied discography, I’ve still only scratched the surface. It’s with that perspective that this review comes from someone judging the merits of this album solely by its sounds, its relevancy, and Bowie’s clear overarching influence on Indie and Art Rock as a whole. And for anyone who knows my musical interests, hearing that Blackstar was influenced by the likes of Death Grips, Kendrick Lamar, and Boards Of Canada it was clear I had to give it a shot. With that being said David Bowie needs no introduction, he’s a clear musical legend, even to those, like myself, who haven’t listened fully yet. His decades-long career of worthy releases is unmatched in music period. And with the release of his 25th album the London-born musician has made a record, defying all odds at his age of 69, that feels poignant, current, and, by all musically-judging accounts, great. An album where the 10-minute monolith that kicks it off only scratches the surface of everything occurring beneath.

Even during his supposed down years ranging from the mid-80's to Y2K Bowie was still putting out creative works that further stretched his scope beyond the reaches many even knew were possible. It seemed like every half decade the man reinvented himself, even creating alter egos for each segment. After a heart attack put a hole in his output the singer went, comparative to his career, silent, only to return with 2013's Next Day, an album that by most counts was rather unremarkable to fans expecting a resurgence. While it may be a bit delayed Blackstar is that resurgence, a record ripe with creativity beaming out of the seams, proving that Bowie's stayed in tune while also reminiscing on his past, all the while remaining truthfully weird. Most aging artists who come back in the spotlight do so by replicating what made them famous, with wildly varied results. But truth be told, Blackstar sounds profoundly modern, the only marking of the past is the artist's aging voice, which he uses to his welcome in the scorned heart he unravels here. Even when he's not, the stubbornly Industrial production that forms the foundation scratches up against the aging star like nothing heard before. 

On songs like 'Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)' the production overwhelms Bowie, forcing him to compete in intensity with a relentlessly towering piece that massively builds over its duration, collapsing upon its own weight when all comes to a head in the final seconds. The same breakneck pace leads the flow on ''Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,' where cacophonous drums fill the background as an undomesticated Saxophone wails, cries, and screams against the walls. It's intoxicating, even for Bowie, who joins in on the madness, hollering along towards the end. This near constant stream of degradation might be Blackstar's biggest deformity though, as the breath and space needed for us listeners isn't there. For Bowie, it's used as his untangling, a facet to encapsulate him in insanity, for us it's a rapid dog chasing us for 40 minutes. Thankfully there's intersections though, like 'Lazarus,' where a slow-burning cruise along soulful Jazz sees Bowie worried instead of pandering to the chaos around him. The music here is daunting, ethereal, and devastating when it eventually builds to a grating steam. There's times elsewhere too, throughout the entire piece, where these words fit well too, as Blackstar stands easily against modern greats for being expertly crafted sonically.

When one looks into the foreground, ignoring the animated backdrop that so often demands attention, you'll soon see a Bowie attempting to do the same, grasping for understanding, both within himself and with others. Like a once-again reinvented artist finding value in his surroundings, Bowie takes from a plethora of sources to curate his content perfectly to his feelings. To the uninitiated, like myself before investigating more, 'Girl Loves Me' seems silly, even baseless lyrically, sounding like a grandpa blurbing ILoveMakonnen's 'Goin Up On A Tuesday.' That is, before you realize Bowie's words are English but hardly make any sense. Marring The Clockwork Orange's jibberish language of Nadsat and English street slang of the 70's, the song, along with Bowie's indefectible flowing, quickly turns the approach he takes genius as the words effortlessly slide within one another as he oogles a girl. When he's not creating merges of languages he's concerned with his own well being, constantly needing to reassure himself of seeming reincarnation. Finale 'I Can't Give Everything Away' sees him, unwillingly, come to terms with his aging and reduced glare on society, as does 'Dollar Days' in some sense, repeating "I'm dying to, I'm trying to" as the song comes to a close, seeing that death is near despite wanting to stop it.

There are moments Blackstar tends to drag, namely on those two closing tracks. They're beautiful in their perspectives on death and their continuation of the Jazz mess, but carry on for longer than their due suggested. If you look at it in a certain light though, it becomes poetic. Bowie himself literally trying to carry on his life and the life of this album by gripping the choruses of these songs until they too become exhausted. Other than that though this LP is one hell of a work of art, accomplished enough as is but taken within the context of the artist at hand it's phenomenal. There's enough variety within his set range of instruments to warrant repeated listens and, while it doesn't scream catchiness, certain parts stave off intense artistic frustrations and relinquish the role for Pop-infused goodness, like when 'Lazarus' explodes or 'Blackstar' suddenly transitions into a Funk Rock anthem. In other words, Blackstar sees Bowie colliding styles he's garnished for decades, all under the guise of Experimental Jazz, to make an album that stands the test of time, for music and his own. 

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