From this album’s opening guitar and orchestral noodling, “the Master of Reinvention” in no way aimed for a return to the commercial dream of his Let’s Dance album, or even a hint at the comfort-in-the-familiar provided by his final live album. Blackstar flows torrentially, in the only way the master would have had it: darker and deeper than his previous studio recording, The Next Day; as an answer to the question, “What kind of record would you create if you could only make one more?”
His much-beloved saxophone makes several prominent appearances, delivered by veteran jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin, rather than by Mr. Bowie himself—whose style previous producer Nile Rodgers referred to as “fiercely untutored.”
Beats also stand out as paramount building blocks on this record. Long a champion of “black music”—to the point of dismissing one of his own albums as “plastic soul,” Bowie’s final recordings, while fiercely exploring the terrain between jazz and pop, anchor themselves solidly to strong kick and snare patterns; from Barry White-style classics, to cutting-edge EDM beats rendered through analog sources. And, in complete contrast to the expansive track listing of his previous studio album, Blackstar offers only half its number of compositions. Focus favors brevity, and this record will not be disliked for a lack of concision.
Many critics have speculated that David Bowie knew this would be his last album, and that he was aiming to produce a record which would sum up, like all of his albums did, the essence of his perspective at that time. Much like on Queen’s Innuendo, that near-death perspective produced a daringly progressive track—the album’s eponymous single—as well as other songs whose full meaning may never be grasped by the general public.
Lyrically, David Bowie’s 25th studio album wasted no time pandering to commercial clichés, and often even dispensed with the artifices of rhyming and meter. Keeping to the mission at hand, themes of parting, death, and the afterlife are recurrent. Do those factors make Blackstar jarring to listen to? They do, but the poignancy of all these factors alchemically fuse to produce artistic gold.
Fittingly though, for an artist who so loved his audience, he opened the album’s final song with a gentle orchestral arrangement and pop-song structure reminiscent of his Labyrinth days. Still, while baring his soul as he stared death down, Mr. Bowie remained the artist steeped in a love of the arcane. As the final song on his final album came to a close, he delved deeper into poetry, before concluding, “I can’t give everything away.”
He should not have, and he did not. Thank you very much, Starman.
Blackstar out now.