Album Review: David Bowie - Blackstar

What is the point, or artistic statement/value/merit/et. al of a David Bowie album, released in 2016?

That is the question proposed when one sits down to listen to Bowie’s latest release, Blackstar, stylized as a gigantic black star—a seven-song, self contained cycle that aims to bridge classic bowie (Station to Station) with modern Bowie (2013’s The Next Day) with a little bit of weird Bowie (Outside, Earthling) thrown in for good measure.

The Next Day came as a complete surprise when it ended Bowie’s decade of silence, following his late 90s, early 2000s run of albums. Only veering into “weird” territory near the end, overall the album was marginally listenable, if only slightly forgettable in the time that has elapsed since the dark ages of 2013.

Therein lies the problem with a classic, long running artist releasing new music—Bowie’s canon (specifically in the 1970s) is pretty much unfuckwithable. It’s timeless music that is still enjoyable, and relevant today. So what happens when an artist of that caliber continues their output into today’s very modern times? Is latter day Bowie like Earthling ever going to be considered classic or seminal? Probably not.

So why continue making artistic statements at all?

Bowie obviously felt he had something to say, musically speaking, with The Next Day. And with Blackstar, it’s a conversation that he felt was left unfinished.

Opening with the sprawling, ten-minute title track, the album reveals its avant-garde influences right out of the gate, a feeling that runs throughout the album, and occasionally ripples to the surface, like on “Sue (or In A Season of Crime),” a song that appears here in a truncated version after originally being included in a singles collection released in 2014.

That is another puzzling thing about Blackstar is that it is not all “new” music—“’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” served as the b-side to “Sue” when it was released as a single, and “Lazarus,” is a song that has been included in Bowie’s off-Broadway musical of the same name, starring “Dexter”’s Michael C. Hall.

I was initially confused by the release of the album’s title track as the single—mostly because of its terrifying video, but also because throughout the song’s two movements (it’s split into two pretty distinct portions) I couldn’t quite get a grasp on what, exactly, the point of the song was. Some kind of “story song,” it recalls the tale of someone who is a black star, and who isn’t a lot of other things (pop star, white star, et. al); and I guess when you release a song this weird as the first single from your forthcoming album, one assumes the rest of the album, like, ties into this song—making some kind of concept album narrative.

That is, however, not exactly the case with Blackstar. For something that is so cohesive in its marketing and packaging efforts to make it seem like it works as a whole, the album itself—the content—is still rather disjointed, only strung together very loosely, if it at all.

From a production standpoint, the album at least has a cohesive quality to it, thanks to Bowie’s long time collaborator Tony Visconti, who again handles production duties on Blackstar—the drums sound crisp and precise, and the horn arrangements (unfortunately not by Bowie) are mysterious and distended sounding. However, noticeably missing from the fold of Bowie’s band is guitarist Gerry Leonard, who lent his atmospheric playing to a number of Bowie’s latter day material.

As weird and disorienting as the album is (and maybe that’s the whole point) when it works, it really does work, and in 2016, it’s still refreshing to hear new music from an artist of Bowie’s distinction—the emotional “Lazarus” is moody in its slithering execution, and the same can be said for the noir-esq “Dollar Days,” another one of the more successful tracks on the record.

However not every song is as successful, and part of that has to do with the lack of cohesion when it comes to the music, but another part of it has to with Bowie’s hit and miss lyricism. “She punched me like a dude,” Bowie croons at the beginning of “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” then later, on “Girl Loves Me,” Bowie asks the surprisingly blunt question, “Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?

Who indeed.

When talking about latter day Bowie, you can look at the immediacy and accessibility of an album like The Next Day; Blackstar has neither of those qualities.

However, despite its frustrating exterior, and as much as I hate to say it, it is a slow burning “grower” or an album. Even a song like the title track eventually gets stuck in your head—specifically the “I’m not a ______, I’m a black star,” portion.

Blackstar, in the end, leaves us with more questions than answers—questions like why a new David Bowie album in 2016? What, as an artist, is he trying to say with a record as disjointed, yet slightly connected, as this? Is there a point to all the weirdness found within, or is it just weirdness for the sake of being weird and shocking—sub-question, is this what it takes to get the attention of listeners in 2016?

Bowie is not doing any interviews w/r/t the album, and I think it goes without saying that he’s not touring in support of it. So it is simply an artistic statement he felt needed to be made, but not clarified if there were questions, thus leaving all seven tracks of Blackstar very open ended, and a little unsatisfying because of that fact.

Bowie won’t lose any longtime fans over this, but he’s not out to gain any new fans either—most people past a certain age probably don’t even know who David Bowie is, let alone the influence he’s had on popular music today. It’s not a late career misstep, but it’s also not a redefining moment in his canon. It simply exists, for some reason, and it’s not providing any real answers as to why.

Blackstar is out on Friday via Columbia.