David Bowie – “Blackstar” Review
It’s official: David Bowie is well and truly back. 2013’s The Next Day was not a Lodger-inspired aberration; The Thin White Duke is a fully engaged and throughly contemporary creative force. Those hoping for sepia-tinged nostalgia will be disappointed, but Bowie is a man of his word and he intends to progress as an avant-garde artist. There’s something satisfying about the idea of pop’s greatest chameleon refusing to churn out watered down rehashes of his former glories, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Bowie of the 1990s was equally progressive, but he never felt sure-footed embracing Trent Reznor’s eerie industrial soundscapes or the blistering beats of Drum and Bass on Earthling. Rather than masterful assimilating new sounds and rising to fresh challenges, Bowie seemed more like a well meaning fan – an intelligent, interesting talent who was clearly out of his comfort zone (if not out of his depth). 2015’s “★” (“Blackstar”) is thrilling precisely because it feels daring and new, arriving without a hint of imitation. Bowie didn’t invent Middle Eastern strings or squelchy zipping synths, but this despairing and, at times, desolate composition feels wholly his own.
Clocking in at an intimidating 10 minutes, “Blackstar” is loosely divided between two suites. The first section is gloriously unnerving and the second offers more conventional melody and hook driven pop music. Both halves have their merits, but it’s hard to avoid being wowed by the opening. Bowie is farcically theatrical as he fills a windswept void with dystopian talk of executions and a solitary candle standing in the villa of Ormen. Who knows what it all really means, but the effect is deliciously creepy as Bowie assumes the role of the entranced cultist. The really joy of “Blackstar’s” opening comes from the way the natural Middle Eastern instrumentation and a glorious horn (first serene, then atonal) are juxtaposed with skittish Kid A style percussion and plenty of laser fire.
The second half of “Blackstar” – which seems to contain the track’s actual hook – is less complex, but no less enjoyable. Bowie’s vocal is sweet and wistful, tapping into the frailty he exploited so beautifully on “Where Are We Now?” Super fans will no doubt pour over lyrics that may allude to the death of Major Tom, but most listeners will relish Bowie’s slyly addictive hook (“I’m not a pornstar…I’m a blackstar”) set against thick horn blasts.
The two conflicting suites merge magnificently in final minutes. The hypnotic lurch of the opening is now re-contextualized as a death march, funeral, execution and eulogy for (presumably) Major Tom. The slow and seductive last rites are devoid of sentiment, but rich in atmosphere and an unspoken melancholy. “Blackstar” is not a straightforward piece of accessible pop music – few ten minute tracks ever are – but given time, the sumptuous and steely instrumentation will seep into your sub-conscious and David Bowie, the high priest of creep, will hold you in his sway.