Well, I had to do this review, didn’t I?
There’s this Latin phrase; De mortuis nil nisi bonum – and it means, “Of the dead, nothing unless good.”
It basically suggests that to speak ill of the dead would be considered inappropriate. Sigmund Freud wrote:
“We assume a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done, and issue the command, De mortuis nil nisi bene: we act as if we were justified in singing his praises at the funeral oration, and inscribe only what is to his advantage on the tombstone. This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.”
And so, I begin my review.
Blackstar (stylised as ★) is the twenty-fifth and final studio album by English musician David Bowie – released just two days before his death – and wherever I look, it’s finding unflinching critical acclaim.
It’s as far as he’s ever strayed from Glam-Legend Pop, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Michael Rancic wrote that Blackstar is “a defining statement from someone who isn’t interested in living in the past, but rather, for the first time in a while, waiting for everyone else to catch up”
But here I am, having listened to this unsettling album many times this week, and I’m wondering if all this praise isn’t just a case of De mortuis and all that. Is it a bad album? Certainly not – Bowie didn’t know how to make shitty music – but it is different from anything he’s ever given us. Not that different is a bad thing, music needs to move forward – and the further from what’s currently face-straddling the radio airwaves these days the better – but it is aggressively experimental. It refuses to cater to the expectations of fans or radio stations alike. Like Bowie himself, Blackstar does whatever the fuck it likes, in the strangest ways.
For this album, I picture Bowie dusting off an old saxophone and gearing up for a little more self-mythologizing in ways nobody could ever have expected. I picture Blackstar delighting many, and infuriating many more, and I can almost see Bowie smiling like a maniac at the thought of it all.
“I’ve made music my bitch. Again.”
Bowie’s always experimented with jazz. Aladdin Sane, Jump They Say, Seven Years In Tibet, the Berlin Trilogy. It’s the first music genre he fell in love with as a child. But don’t let me lead you down the wrong path here; Blackstar isn’t an entire album of jazz, it’s a lot more complicated than that. There’s brutality here. There are puzzles waiting to be examined, and through all the crooning and sax and shattered drumming, Bowie moves forward, almost restlessly, with the air of somebody who has a lot to get off their chest in a short amount of time, as if inspiration and creativity are bursting from the seams. A long way to walk on a short plank, so to speak.
Those who heard the album for the first time during those two days between it’s release and his departure heard something strange; Revival. Resurgence. And those who heard it for the first time after the 10th of January 2016 heard something even stranger; a Goodbye.
Producer Tony Visconti took to Facebook to write about Bowie and the meaning behind Blackstar:
“He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.”
They say, after the 10th of January, Blackstar began to transcend the meaning of life and death in art as we know it.
I for one, would caution against trying to find too much meaning here – but it’s Bowie, and you know that’s going to be a hard trick from the beginning. You know there’s meaning here, beyond the music. You feel it in every single one of these seven tracks, from the album’s fiercely surreal opener, Blackstar, to it’s enigmatically-titled closing, I can’t give everything away.
What that meaning really is, whether it be a Swansong, a goodbye, or just another kick to the music industry’s balls – only Bowie knows.
SCORE : 3/5
When an album begins with an execution, and then continues to serve up a bit of dread and death and dismemberment for the next 7 tracks, well, you can’t quite tell exactly what you’re in for… But you have a good enough idea. It could be art. It could also be a near-unlistenable, cacophonic piece of trash. If it weren’t for Bowie’s name, most people might not give it a second listen, but I for one have given it many, and though it may be strange… Though it may even grow stranger by the listen… It’s not bad. It’s no “Heroes” or “Low” – but just as he did then with those albums, he’s letting this one speak for him. It’s Bowie. It can’t be bad.
BEST TRACK :
“In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all
On the day of execution, on the day of execution”
That’s from the opening title track, Blackstar, the album’s first single. Pitchfork Media named “Blackstar” the 11th best music video of 2015, too. It’s a haunting song, no doubt – and rumours that it’s all about terrorist group ISIS make it even more so. Much of Bowie’s greatest music has been streaked with violence and doom, and you’ll find plenty of that here.
Speaking of a bit of ultra-violence, fans of A Clockwork Orange will be delighted with the track “Girl Loves Me” – written in a mixture of English, Polari and Nadsat – the teen language Anthony Burgess invented in 1962 for his A Clockwork Orange novel. A Clockwork Orange was a big influence on Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust days. The clothes, hair, and makeup of his Ziggy persona was largely based on the Malcom McDowell character in the film adaption of A Clockwork Orange.
Now though, the line “Where the fuck did Monday go?” takes a chilling turn. Bowie died on a Sunday.
My own favourite from the album – “Lazarus” – is simply too heartbreaking not to be the album’s stand-out track.
According to Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti, the lyrics and video of Lazarus and other songs on the album were intended to be a self-epitaph, a commentary on Bowie’s own impending death.
Lazarus of Bethany is the subject of one of Jesus’s most prominent miracles in the Bible’s Gospel of John. Lazarus is brought back to life four days after his burial, proving the power of Jesus over humanity’s greatest and most merciless enemy: death.
“This sickness will not end in death,” Jesus tells his followers after learning that Lazarus is ill. “No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”
The closer you look at Lazarus, the more you get the chilling feeling that Bowie knew the date and time of his passing down to the second. The opening line of “Look up here, I’m in heaven” takes on a poignant new meaning.
In the music video, scenes of Bowie writing manically, tormented, are harrowing to watch. It ends with the ailing Bowie retreating into a wardrobe and closing the door behind him, seemingly bidding farewell.
Lazarus rose from the grave… And in some ways it’s like Bowie already has, too. But of course, he’s done it with an album.
“I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.”
– David Bowie
R.I.P Goblin King