There’s a man sitting alone in a dimly lit corner of a room, left barren by his own sense of self-satisfaction. He momentarily feels life’s peaks, yet his comedowns are marked by nothing but loathsome regret. His possessions dwindle as the days go on. His highs get lower with every journey, but the need to go on the journey grows more inescapable. As he drives the stake into his arm for the umpteenth time, the dirty room fades around him. The walls dissipate and the empty blackness of the void surrounds him. The glow of the stars comfortingly blinds him as the burden of his own weight is lifted away. The airy guitar and drums tiptoe into his void, accompanying his emptiness with momentum and force. Horns creep into his world, pulsating every returning rush that washes over his body in a wave of euphoria. The horns grow more sporadic, the drums less stable. The high is ending, the journey nearly over. The man prepares his next dose, ready to return to the stars as Major Tom.
Major Tom was presumed dead. Ground control had lost communication with him, and in a panic, he called out to his wife. His voice faded away ominously. It grew distant, like the isolation of space was slowly suffocating him. Then, ten years later, we were told Major Tom was a junkie, “strung out on heaven’s highs/hitting an all time low”. It transformed the space rock jam into a devastating revelation of a man struck down by his own drug addiction. A portrait of a national hero had now become the portrait of a man living a fantasy, finding comfort in fleeting self-destruction. Now, on “Lazarus”, there’s a hint of that same escapism. He croons atop a drearily uplifting space jazz rhythm that he wants to be free. His head whirls from the highs he keeps returning to. And much like the character Major Tom returning to his highs and desires to be free, David Bowie has returned to his sense of artistry and experimentation on Blackstar.
Since 1969, David Bowie has solidified himself as an amorphous chameleon rocker, changing sonic form with every album. His self-titled acoustic space-rock album defied debut expectations. He honed in on his love of sci-fi with the release of Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His Berlin trilogy is lathered in an avant-garde approach to rock and pop, backed by production from fellow visionaries Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. But this new century has not been as kind to Bowie. His albums were met with decent reception, and other artists collaborating with him or paying tribute to him often marked his most notable performances. He played “Wake Up” with Arcade Fire in 2005. James Murphy lent a remix of “Love is Lost” to accompany the release of The Next Day. Beck gathered a 167-piece orchestra to cover Bowie’s spectacular “Sound and Vision”. Here we had David Bowie, a man lauded for his expressionistic individualism, sharing his modern moments with those he inspired years ago.
He seemed to have realized this, as evident by the cover of 2013’s The Next Day. But Bowie emulating Bowie isn’t the same as Bowie being Bowie, which is what he finally did again on Blackstar. With the aid of Visconti, his newest album is a return to form not in the sense that he’s captured the feelings he clutched onto when performing “Rock and Roll Suicide” or “Modern Love”, but rather that he’s rekindled his introspective tendency to move forward. The space rocker combining tongue-in-cheek sci-fi themes with glam rock tones has become a darkly brooding character speaking in ambiguous phrasing atop freeform atmospheres.
Bowie said that a major influence for Blackstar was To Pimp A Butterfly, which is probably most evident through the elements of free jazz scattered throughout. “Dollar Days” starts out sparse but grows increasingly chaotic, flying far and away from any semblance of restraint. The infectious yodeling-style of Bowie’s inflections on “Girl Loves Me” pairs beautifully against the deep-toned A Clockwork Orange lyricism. The fusion of glam rock, hip-hop, and spacey vibes on “Blackstar” culminate in the center when Bowie laments that, “something happened on the day he died”. Is he referring to Major Tom? It’s vague, but the sentiments of death and the unknown are familiar, repackaged and delivered in an unnervingly unfamiliar way. It feels uncertainly foreboding with an underlying immediacy to it that makes the opening track and those that follow seem all the more distant and unstable.
A lot of Bowie fans will be quick to proclaim that “Bowie’s back!” before really sitting down and giving Blackstar the time it deserves. Its psychedelic tinges combined with its lack of restrictions make for an album whose release feels undeserved. The nuanced mixture of artistic perspectives thrown together never feels clunky, but rather swirls together into this inescapably delirious barrage of musicality. There’s an overwhelming theatricality brought about by the glamour and liveliness of the jazz influences. Much like Scott Walker, Bowie’s most recent release stacks up as one of his best, having captured a darkness that can only be caught by an artist who’s explored his possibilities over the decades. Though the tracks’ runtimes seem long, when the album finishes you’ll be left craving more. It truly is a pity there isn’t more, but Bowie’s return to form and newfound sense of defiance is more than enough to satiate longtime fans and secure the longevity of his legacy.
– Zach W.