At first, I wished I'd gotten and listened to Blackstar before Bowie left us. Then I would have had an opportunity to judge it dispassionately, without the sense of loss and the desire to pay tribute altering my response. But as I listened to his slightly frayed voice on my second time through the album, I was reminded of Warren Zevon's far more ravaged voice on his last album, when we all knew he was dying, and I realized that any review written before Bowie's death would be missing Blackstar's ultimate context.
Before that, media reactions were focused on the fact that he'd recorded with a local jazz group led by saxophonist Donnie McCaslin. I'd listened once to the first track we'd been teased with in advance of the album's release, the title track, and I'd thought, "this is not jazz" (though McCaslin does get in a few nicely skronking blasts), found it a bit unfocused, and then in the hubbub of end-of-year list-making, hadn't even gotten around to hearing the next-released song, "Lazarus."
My first two listens were to acclimate to the musical style and get a general feel for the album's mood. Unsurprisingly, "Lazarus" was a highlight, and in a similar mood, "Dollar Days." With drummer Mark Guiliana's rhythms either rock or suggesting a hybrid of the inexorable drive of drum'n'bass and the herky-jerky asymmetry of classic (i.e. English, NOT American, dubstep), there was not one moment where I felt it was a jazz album. Sure, McCaslin's sax appears frequently, but Bowie has often used sax (and plays it himself, though not here); it's a set of timbres to be deployed, not a style. Certainly this doesn't sound like any of his twenty-four previous studio albums.
Parsing Bowie's oblique lyrics without reference to the booklet was difficult, so third time through I pulled it out. Black gloss on black matte, it is almost as difficult to read it as it is to discern all the words from his singing; I found myself holding the booklet up to the light, changing the angle from one side of the page to the other to catch the gleam off the glossy letters just right. Nonetheless, the lines that are repeated the most in "Blackstar" retained their mystery; this is perhaps not a song where a single literal meaning can be pinned down; it seems like a parable, some sort of prophecy about the isolated individual being persecuted. A couple seconds short of ten minutes, it repeats its story over and over with shifting details each time (buried in the middle is the great throwaway line "I want eagles in my daydreams and diamonds in my eyes") as the music changes its mood and texture each time through. Though I can't be sure what he's singing about, there's an urgency and sense of timeliness to it nonetheless. The lyric page for "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" (the title taken from a scandalous 17th century play by John Ford) doesn't even include all the words, though there doesn't seem to be a whole lot happening there. Sounds good, though, and is different from the more aggressively technological version that came out in 2014.
Then comes the brooding "Lazarus," the symbol-laden video of which we've already posted. This is, as has been much remarked on in the past two days, the song on which Bowie told us he was dying. I'm curious whether the bluebird he refers to is the bluebird of happiness or the fleeting one of Mary Coleridge's poem. As avid a reader as he was, I'll guess the latter. This is the only track on which Bowie is credited as playing electric guitar (though it seems there's uncredited electric guitar elsewhere -- more on that later); here it's soaring single notes and then, in the verses, crashing waves of dirty chords.
Most of the time, though, the musical space is filled by keyboardist Jason Lindner and electric bassist Tim Lefebvre, as on the murder ballad "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)," first heard as a new track on his 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed. That version was made with jazz arranger Maria Schneider's band (which includes McCaslin); Bowie and McCaslin's band recorded the new version on Blackstar, which moves it far away from its original jazz version.
Perhaps no song here resists interpretation more than "Girl Loves Me"; you'd think a song with a title such as that would be straightforward, but no, it's full of possibly made-up words or obscure slang, with the most frequently heard line being "where the fuck did Monday go."
The lushly gorgeous "Dollar Days" also refers to dying, though coyly -- "I'm dying to," which inevitably now sounds like "I'm dying too," since it also says, "If I never see the English evergreens I'm running to." This is the track where McCaslin unleashes his most poignant solo. There's also seemingly lots of electric guitar, despite the lack of credit for it. Similarly, there's very Frippish guitar on the final track, "I Can't Give Everything Away" -- which needless to say sounds rather valedictory at this point, since it's not about divesting one's self of possessions but rather about not revealing meanings -- or so I'm guessing thanks to "Saying no but meaning yes/This is all I've ever meant/That's the message that I sent/I can't give everything away."
The way this track builds and builds, to suddenly have most instruments drop out in the middle for a reprise of "I know something's very wrong/The pulse returns the prodigal son/The blackout hearts the flowered news/With skull designs upon my shoes," then builds again to that Frippy moment, then quickly dies away -- well, how can one NOT see what that turned out to be about? And though there are only two verses (each heard twice), each one gets a page under a photo of Bowie, the first a half-body portrait against a background of stormy clouds, the second the reverse of that but deeply darkened and with a yellow square around his head.
I've listened to this album five times, four in a row (occasionally repeating a song the last time); I've owned it for just fifteen hours now. That's obviously not enough time for a definitive judgment, yet Blackstar sure feels like a masterpiece. It's certainly Bowie going out on a high note. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.