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Albums of the Year: Blackstar - David Bowie | reviews, news & interviews

Albums of the Year: Blackstar - David Bowie

Albums of the Year: Blackstar - David Bowie

An ending that could have been a new beginning

A year on, what can be said about Blackstar that hasn’t been said already? The answer is: what I have to say about it. That’s not to claim any special insights, it’s simply because the artist designed it that way. Even though Bowie said not a word during the decade leading up to his death, the messages explicit, implicit and fancifully imagined were all there for the taking. One such message was the little blank notebook included with all the other paraphernalia in The Next Day Special Edition. Its blankness clearly said; there is no cohesive meaning to this record other than the one you bring to it, so you join the dots and fill in the gaps and thus complete the Work.

And so it was with Blackstar too; Bowie running just ahead of us through the darkening woods, chuckling to himself, scattering clues; Crowley, A Clockwork Orange, cancer lesions, an old Elvis song, a dead Major Tom, dying stars – a deconstructed collage of self-referential reference points and filched symbols to confound and delight anyone wanting some serious fun. But it would have all been so much hot air and cool sax if the end result hadn’t been so gripping, moving, scary and surprising. A year on from when Blackstar first blotted out the sun, I still find myself listening to it with an attentiveness I’ve not applied to any other record in decades. Yes, The Next Day was a wonderful gift too, but in retrospect it only sated old appetites rather than create new ones. Blackstar on the other hand rewires one’s brain.

There are no accidents on a David Bowie record

And therein lies the real tragedy of losing Bowie so young (yes, young); we don’t get to go on the new musical journey this remarkable album signalled so clearly and so brightly. Although the song craft never went away (even on Tonight and Never Let Me Down), DB’s music was never more captivating than when he just grabbed the reins and held on tight. Bowie’s decision to work with a contemporary jazz band without for a moment having them compromise what they do was an important starting point. Then he and producer Tony Visconti selected what they needed from what must have been a dizzying wealth of material and forged something wholly new and uncanny, something that was neither jazz nor rock, just a fresh start.

So, what have I written in my hypothetical little blank notebook? Just a few disjointed observations really. How the multi-tracked vocals that form the bridge between the first and second section of the title track sound like a gale blowing through a gutted church. How the blackstar black humour of the yelped line, "Where the fuck did Monday go?" in “Girl Loves Me” says both nothing and everything. And how the old man in the hospital bed who drops his phone and sings, "Aint that just me?" in “Lazarus” is the young man in “Sweet Thing” who once sung to his lover, "Does that make you smile, isn't that me?" Then there’s the anxious breathing at the beginning of “Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”. Listened to on headphones it creates the unsettling aural illusion that it’s me standing in that vocal booth early in 2015, digging deep for the emotional mindset I needed to perform the chilling vocal that follows.

There are no accidents on a David Bowie record (apart from the happy ones that are taken full advantage of), so I feel sure that the inclusion of that breathing is as much an artistic statement as the tape unspooling at the end of Scary Monsters. I can think of no other moment on a record that so uncannily places the listener inside the head of a particular human being on a given day. But perhaps what’s most remarkable about Blackstar overall is just how quickly those 40 minutes pass. This album swallows up time. It’s a cloying fever-dream that takes in sinister religious rituals, spousal murder and deathbed ruminations and doesn’t let up until the heartrending sunrise of “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” No, Bowie didn’t give everything away, but on Blackstar he perhaps gave away more than he knew. 

Two More Essential Albums from 2016

Elza Soares – The Woman at the End of the World

Beyoncé - Lemonade

Gig of the Year

Eska at the Roundhouse

Track of the Year

Beyoncé – All Night

Overleaf: watch the video for Beyoncé's All Night

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