David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ Is Filled With Songs About Death and Doom: Album Review
The new David Bowie release, Blackstar, begins with an execution, and from there the tidings only get grimmer. His 25th studio album features just seven songs, but they serve up a veritable Grand Guignol of dread, death, even dismemberment.
Blackstar opens with the sprawling title track, whose scene is laid in a candlelit villa where "On the day of execution/Only women kneel and smile." Images of sadomasochism and castration flicker through the lyrics in "Tis a Pity She's a Whore"; "Lazarus" is narrated from beyond the grave, by a ghost who drops his cellphone from heaven to the earth below, presumably adding to the body count. There's a straight murder ballad, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)," and a menacing song delivered largely in Nadsat, the lingo spoken by the teenage thugs in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. ("Choodesny with the red rot/Libbilubbing litso-fitso," Bowie hisses.) The album ends with the churning "I Can't Give Everything Away," which seems to offer some relief from the bleakness, until you listen more closely: "The blackout hearts, the flowered news/With skull designs upon my shoes." The reaper wears a skate-rat's high-tops, and he's tiptoeing up behind you.
It's tempting to say Bowie is channeling the zeitgeist, filling songs with the fury and foreboding of the scourged world of 2016. (Bowie reportedly told Donny McCaslin, the jazz saxophonist whose quartet forms the core of the backing group on Blackstar, that the title track is about ISIS.) On the other hand, for Bowie, such subject matter is nothing new. From the ill-fated astronaut of "Space Oddity" to the lovers cowering beneath flying bullets in "Heroes," much of his greatest music has been streaked with violence and doom.
In any case, a listener may leave the precise meaning of the album to Bowie's most dedicated decipherers. What grips your attention on Blackstar is not sense but sound -- the rumble, snarl and screech of the music, which is as potent as any he has produced in quite some time. (It's far more focused than The Next Day, Bowie's appealing but mushy 2013 comeback.) Much has been made of his choice of jazz collaborators, but to call this album jazz is as wrong as it would be to call it art rock, or funk, or electronica -- though all of those styles and more are stirred into the mix. Blackstar is unmistakably a band record, showcasing a talented group of musicians who are comfortable navigating the songs' harmonically twisty byways. Together with Bowie's intrepid longtime right-hand man, producer Tony Visconti, they give the record a distinctively eerie, muscular stamp.
You can hear that chemistry on the title track, which justifies the sprawl of its nine-plus minutes, moving from a stuttering intro bolstered by McCaslin's honking sax into a plangent soul ballad and then a sinister, groaning coda. The combined effect is goth, in the sense that Chartres Cathedral is goth: The song is a grand edifice, ornamented with spires and gargoyles, with towering vaults beneath which the music echoes and howls.
Nothing on Blackstar quite matches the majesty and weirdness of that opener, but nearly everything comes close. Special credit goes to the rhythm section, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, who lock into Bowie's grooves, tilting the music in the direction of spooky funk. Then there's guitarist Ben Monder, who plays the Robert Fripp role impressively on songs like "Lazarus" and the lovely "Dollar Days" with a lyrical combination of delicacy and clatter.
Bowieologists already are likening the album to his great Berlin experiments Low or "Heroes." It's to Bowie's credit that the comparisons don't quite fit. Blackstar is its own strange, perverse thing, the latest move in a boundlessly unpredictable career. Bowie turns 69 on its release date, Jan. 8, yet he remains as committed to novelty as anyone in pop. He also remains a powerful and effective singer, displaying the full range of his tricks on Blackstar -- whispering, warbling, shrieking and dropping into his most romantic baritone-Bowie croon to deliver lyrics like "I want eagles in my daydreams and diamonds in my eyes." That line is one of the more hopeful on a discomfiting record, an album that keeps you riveted even when -- especially when -- it creeps you out.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of Billboard.