Having had metal as my go-to genre over the past decade, David Bowie‘s music rarely cropped up beyond the well-known tracks played by the media. I always knew he was popular, but never dove into his musical works, meaning that when Blackstar was first released in 2016 it passed by unnoticed. It was only when I watched the recent BBC documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years, which towards the end explored some of the back story and ideas behind Blackstar, that I thought it was time to give it a listen.
Having never listened to much of Bowie’s work I expected something with character but, overall, rather safe in terms of sound. How wrong I was.
Watching the documentary I started to get an understanding of Bowie’s approach to the album by the selection of musicians chose to work with. Rather than the typical electronic artists present in the modern popular music scene, he instead chose mainly jazz musicians. As first track ‘Blackstar‘ unfolds, it becomes glaringly obvious this is not your average album full of radio hits and hook heavy melodies. Within the first minute of the track there’s a combination of clean guitars, creating an airy, ethereal sonic bed, starkly contrasting the heavily effected vocals lines and syncopated percussive work which follows. As the track continues it takes the listener on a journey, slowly introducing other elements, such as the synthesisers and the saxophone solos, before pulling right back into an uneasy, tense soundscape. The song continues to evolve, pushing through this darker section, flourishing into an uplifting melody with beautiful vocals. As the song moves forward we get a light taste of funk with the reintroduction of the saxophone and guitar chord stabs. The track slowly comes full circle, returning to the original ideas of the track, but adding extras to make it familiar, yet distinct. As the track comes to an end the rhythmical integrity of the track starts to slowly dissipate as we are left with a scattering of notes over a solitary kick and snare.
As far as opening tracks go, ‘Blackstar‘ is brilliant and ticks all the right boxes.
As the album progresses, a variety of other influences and musical styles are heard. Art rock, jazz, experiential rock, electronica, hip hop, drum and bass, acid house, break beat and a fair amount of free form work. It’s all there. One notable feature of the album is the overarching sense of uneasy melancholy. This is in part due the sonic textures that are present in the majority of the songs and the dissonant nature of some of the tracks, which rarely stick to a single musical key.
But Blackstar extends beyond the sonic realms. The music videos for the tracks ‘Blackstar‘ and ‘Lazarus‘ both help to weave a visual interpretation of the music that both unifies and compliments the music on multiple levels. Both videos reinforce the sense of unease with the character of Button Eyes featuring in both.
It’s great to know this album sold so well in an age of streaming. It feels rare in the modern age for a song or album to ascend beyond being a piece of music. Seeing the documentary and learning some of the ideas behind Blackstar helped spark the curiosity helped spark the interest to listen to the album. Hearing the album with an open and curious mind, having not listened to much of Bowie’s work, it proved to be a hugely satisfying album, full of character and mystery that slowly reveals itself with each subsequent listen.