When ★ was released a year ago today on David Bowie‘s birthday, I listened to it and thought, “This is a challenging album.” Three years prior he had released The Next Day, an instantly accessible (at least by Bowie standards) album full of pop gems. ★ (Blackstar) is not that album.
It occasionally hints at pop, shows the shadow of a consistent melody, temporarily lulls with a tempo that changes up the moment it becomes familiar. At first glance it resembles 1976’s Station To Station: only seven tracks and an epic 10 minute opener – but that album was a masterpiece of melody and pop sensibility. Sonically, ★ is more reminiscent of 1995’s Outside, though even that album had the wonderfully light “Hallo Spaceboy” and the dark industrial powerhouse of “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.”
★ starts with the title cut, “Blackstar” which is actually two songs coupled into a single track. There is some vague imagery, the darkly intoned, “In the Villa of Orman stands a solitary candle…” accompanied by dark strings and choral accents before a distant sax solo fades in and then out again. The opening segment of “Blackstar” has the makings of a prog rock masterpiece that would make Rick Wakeman wet himself. And abruptly, at the four-and-a-half minute mark, the song veers into pop territory: Bright strings fade in before the rich intonations give way to Bowie’s reedy vocals: “Something happened on the day he died / His spirit rose a meter then stepped aside…” The song glances in the direction of pop song familiarity, with the narrator reciting a list of what he is and what he isn’t, “I’m a Blackstar, I’m not a film star…” Saxophone trills in the background call to mind Bowie’s funk excursions in the ’70s; the drumbeat is steady at a reassuring midtempo; the lyrics start to evolve into something that an audience could sing along with if so inclined… and then three minutes after we left, we’re back in the Villa of Orman in a sort of reprise that melds the lyrics of the first segment with the instrumentation of the second. It is a dense ten minutes. The first half dozen times I listened to this track, it was like the scene in the film room at the end of A Clockwork Orange, not in that I felt I was being reprogrammed, but just for the fact that there was so much information to be taken in and assimilated. A year later, it is a stunningly deep and rich song that has become comforting in its sprawl and familiarity. That said, I still cannot be sure I grasp Bowie’s full narrative thrust.
The second track, “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” starts with the sound of David taking a couple of deep breaths before a steady rock drumbeat kicks in accompanied by some meandering keys and muted jazz horns. As I said, this is not easy listening, not a pop album by any stretch. It’s atmospheric jazz – and even Bowie’s lyrics have a word-jazz feel to them throughout a lot of the album. I mean, the opening line to this song: “Man, she punched me like a dude!” Tell me that wouldn’t go over huge in any slam poetry night in Portland, Oregon. In point of fact, however, the lyrics seem almost secondary on this cut. Again, so much going on. Coltrane-like sax wailing and screeching, barely audible piano being pounded in the background, the insistence of the drums, all of it building to a roaring, rushing crescendo and David just shouting the occasional syllable.
This is just two songs into the album. It is a LOT to take in. I listened to ★ a handful of times when it was released a year ago and then I shelved it. For one, it was a little too much given the timing of David Bowie’s death. For another, it might be the most ambitious album he ever released. And it is very easy, when listening to David’s more ambitious works, to realize that he is a genius and it’s all going over my head and I’m probably not smart enough or well-read enough to be listening to it in the first place. But that’s okay. I’ll just stand here earthbound and snatch the few small shards I’m able to grasp.
The second single off the album, “Lazarus,” comes very close to quoting The Cure in its opening guitar notes and in the bassline that runs throughout the song. (If you don’t believe me, listen to this song a few times and then go listen to the Disintegration album). And then, of course, the opening lines are prophetic: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” This is the first song on the album that is structured like traditional pop music (though it lacks a proper chorus), but even then, at nearly six-and-a-half minutes and only occasional hints of actual melody throughout (such as the bridge where David sings, “By the time I got to New York I was living like a king…”) it isn’t something that is going to get played at a lot of weddings or class reunions. But between the title and the hints at his own impending demise, David Bowie seems to be reminding us that he’s immortal.
Additional reading aside: I read a lot of online articles in preparation for today’s post and I’m trying hard not to plagiarize anyone while writing this. Obviously, with David Bowie passing away just two days after this album was released last year, it received even more press than it might have otherwise. It’s been dissected and discussed every which way and I’m not sure there’s all that much I can add apart from my own impressions and opinions. That said, here are a couple of the best articles I read on the topic over the past few days: Vigilant Citizen talks about the occult imagery on the album and David’s history of occultism and Myriad “easter-eggs” hidden within the album artwork.
“Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” contains some of the most straightforward lyrics on the album, (unless I’m just misunderstanding them), but also some of the darkest, in which the narrator discovers an admission of infidelity after his spouse passes on. Another ★ song in which death is a central theme. I’ve read articles since the album’s release in which producer Tony Visconti intimates that, in the planning and recording of this album, Bowie was unaware that the cancer was terminal and that the end was imminent (he received news that it was terminal during the filming of the video for “Lazarus”), but even so, mortality was clearly weighing heavily on his mind.
“Cheena so sound so titi up this malchek say…” The opening lyrics in “Girl Loves Me” immediately bring to mind David’s “Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family” from 1974’s Diamond Dogs album. Evidently (again, trying not to plagiarize), this is slang lifted from either A Clockwork Orange or from early 20th century gay culture in London. The song finds him channeling his inner vulgarian: “I’m sitting in the chestnut tree / Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me” and asking over and over again, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Lilting, questioning lyrics give way to more chanting and a choir-like delivery of the song’s title which sounds both defensive and plaintive. Once again, the arrangement is more jazz than it is pop or rock, meandering and elusive.
“Dollar Days,” is easily the prettiest song on the album. Bowie’s voice is as strong and in control as on any recording in his career here. And while the song might not strictly adhere to verse-chorus-verse pop structure, it is certainly the most conventionally accessible track on ★. For starters, it’s easy to make out all of the lyrics, so that helps. And while there are still some jazz overtones to the underlying instrumentation, it is a lot less avant garde than on prior cuts.
“Dollar Days” segues seamlessly into “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” a song which opens with a (very faint) nod to his own “Thursday’s Child” from his 1999 entry, Hours, also an excellent album. It makes for a very sweet, slightly sad closing number… a promise of more to come, forever unfulfilled.
A year later, it still seems impossible that a minor god like David Bowie has exited our plane. His music was such an integral part of my life from my teens onward that, through it, I imagined a level of connection to the man himself. The best art touches us thus. Through circumstance or design, ★ will forever be linked to his death two days after this album’s release date. Some might choose to view this sadly. I don’t. This is a record obsessed with death, to be sure, and it foreshadows its author’s own. But it is also full of resurrection passages and an eye toward the future – toward the star shining even in our blackest hours.