Music Review: Blackstar
In a lesser-known tune called “Black Star,” Elvis Presley once sang, “When a man sees his black star, he knows his time has come.”
More than half a century later, on the birthday that he shared with Elvis, David Bowie released his 25th album, ★ (pronounced “Blackstar,” a medical term for a type of cancer lesion). Two days later, he died of cancer at age 69. Artistic to the last, the Starman lived just long enough for his age to match the symbol for the astrological sign of Cancer, thus turning his exit from this world into a multilayered Crowleyan pun.
At the outset of Blackstar’s lavish title track—a dreamlike, hallucinatory jazztronica piece that spans almost 10 minutes—a slightly jarring syncopated drum and bass rhythm warns listeners not to let Bowie’s trance-inducing vocal lull them into a false sense of security. Jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his quartet create a strange and compelling mesh of electronic and analog instrumentation, including strings and woodwinds. In a passage whose first line is rhythmically similar to that of his classic early ’70s tune “Changes,” Bowie sings, “Something happened on the day he died: spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.”
Beyond the implications of its title, “Lazarus” (a song that shares its title with an off-Broadway musical whose songs Bowie composed shortly before his passing) is rich with allusions to the singer’s impending reunion with the Great Mystery. “Look up here. I’m in Heaven,” the vocalist intones, as if envisioning his words reaching listeners posthumously. In an increasingly urgent tone, he sings, “Just like that bluebird, I’ll be free.”
Blackstar’s music is alternately placid and unsettling, seeming to illustrate Bowie’s own fluctuation between discomfort and acceptance. The relatively tranquil feel of the album’s final two songs implies that the turbulence has passed, leaving only wistfulness and resignation. In “Dollar Days,” Bowie sings, “If I never manage to see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me,” while in “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he muses, “Seeing more and feeling less; saying no but meaning yes—this is all I ever meant. That’s the message that I sent.”
Blackstar is not a grand summation of Bowie’s life and body of work. It is, however, a powerful and compelling swan song from an artist who was creating groundbreaking music all the way to his last breath.