David Bowie Retrospective/Blackstar Album Review
I think it would be self-indulgent to spend more than a paragraph or two writing about what David Bowie meant to me. I was just at a bar the other night talking about how he’s my all-time favorite artist, and how I was disappointed that I’d probably never get to see him perform live, although I always held out hope that he’d return to headline a big festival like Coachella. Bowie was the first queer icon I latched onto, before I even really knew what queer was, and definitely before I felt comfortable with my own relationship to the term. There was something, at once both sexy and a little scary, about the worlds his music inhabited. I was the kind of kid who got lost in those worlds, the polished landscape covered in grime covered in a second layer of polish, to the point where I wrote a musical (in the vein of Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia!) about them when I was about 14. My short-lived junior high band (consisting of me on guitar and my friend on vocals) debuted by playing a cover of “Space Oddity”.
I don’t think I’m alone in having these kinds of stories, because I think you could ask all manner of artists, musicians, and general creative-types about David Bowie and get similar memories shared. He had that kind of broad influence, as a musician and actor, as a fashion icon and a queer one, as an artist who never felt dated or aged, even as he approached 70 years old. When he performed with Arcade Fire in 2005, he stood alongside the band not as a desperate hanger-on clinging to relevance, but as a kind, paternal figure using his own status to help lift others up. Even in his musical prime, the breakneck pace with which he shifted genres never felt disingenuous. Whether he was tackling soul music, German-inspired avant-garde, glam, folk, new wave, or pop, Bowie came across as someone with such limitless passion for so many things that it was a struggle to pick just one.
It’s also easy to forget how prolific he was. From the release of his self-titled album in 1969 (not to be confused with his debut album, also self-titled, in 1967) to Scary Monsters in 1980, Bowie released 12 studio albums of original material, as well as an album of covers. Moreover, there’s not a bad album in that stretch. Lodger might compare unfavorably to Low and “Heroes”, as Diamond Dogs might to Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, but effectively all of Bowie’s material during that period is great. He also released a handful of non-album singles, wrote songs for other artists, and performed on and produced albums by the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed during the same period.
Furthermore, he was no passive frontman, contributing heavily to the writing and arranging of his music and playing over a dozen instruments including most notably guitar, piano, harmonica, and saxophone. Even his covers feel uniquely his, whether he was covering old 50’s and 60’s standards, or his rock contemporaries. Compare the Johnny Mathis original cut of “Wild is the Wind” (itself, a great track), with Bowie’s sprawling, 6-minute epic, or compare Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”, a working class anthem (like all great Springsteen songs), with Bowie’s glitzy, campy, danceable version. He even had the bold audacity to cover “Across the Universe” only five years after the breakup of the Beatles, and with John Lennon himself in the studio.
Bowie’s passing has shifted the nature of this article from a review of his newest album, Blackstar, to sort of a retrospective, but it should be noted that once he found his stride again in the mid 90’s, Bowie never slowed down. Blackstar is just the final chapter in the modern Bowie canon, and it’s every bit as exceptional as Reality or Heathen before it. Conventional wisdom holds that Bowie’s greatest strength has always been his ability to reinvent himself, but I think to boil his quality down to that is disingenuous. Yes, there are great differences between glam Bowie and soul Bowie, between folk Bowie and late 90’s drum-n-bass Bowie, but there are similarities as well. There are subtle homages to older work, but never to the point where one gets the sense that Bowie’s moved backwards.
There are brief, fleeting instants during the title track, “Blackstar”, where the instrumentation sounds like it could be from Earthling. The harmonica that echoes in the background of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is extremely reminiscent of “A New Career In A New Town” off of Low. The 12-string guitar on “Dollar Days” recalls a lot of tracks Bowie put out in the early 70’s. Yet, Blackstar never rests on these brief moments of homage. The moments of comfortable familiarity are just the opening act for what Blackstar has to offer. Jazz dances throughout Blackstar, paired with Bowie’s avant-garde leanings and rock sensibilities into a dense, artsy declaration of purpose.
It’s haunting, too. Bowie hid his illness well, but after passing away only two days after Blackstar’s release, it’s hard not to feel like he was just holding on until the album came out. Knowing this, lyrics like the opener from “Lazarus”, which goes, “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now” or the first lines of “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, “I know something’s very wrong / The pulse returns for prodigal sons / The blackout’s heart with flowering news / With skull designs upon my shoes” take on a new meaning. Whether intentional or not, Blackstar seems supernaturally imbued with a sense of finality, as if it were silly to ever think there could be anything else after it.
There won’t be anything after it. Depending on Bowie’s last wishes and back catalogue, there might be some loose tracks that might come out, or perhaps archival footage or demos, obscure b-sides that were only released in Japan and then fell to obscurity, but in terms of a complete, fully-realized work, Blackstar is the endpoint. If there had to be one, then at least it was something as sweepingly beautiful as Blackstar.
Embedded below is the music video for “Lazarus”, the second single from Blackstar. In addition, I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a playlist of Bowie tracks spanning from his 1969 album to 2013’s The Next Day, in chronological order, that can be viewed here. It’s funny to call anything Bowie released a “deep cut” given his legendary status, but these tracks were generally not singles, and are probably less popular than Bowie’s most famous songs. If you’ve never really listened to Bowie’s work, or haven’t in a while, this playlist might give you an idea of the scope and diversity of his music.