Before I even get started, I just want to be honest and admit that I haven’t followed David Bowie’s illustrious career too closely. This review will be largely void of historical comparisons to his older music because it would be unfair and probably wrong. I will take it as a stand alone album and judge it solely against my on hidden syllabus. Also, dissecting lyrics is a huge weakness in my music review skill set. Vocals are an instrument and I will take them as such.
Almost forgot. *Theme Song*
OK, so you are probably asking, “Justin, this album has been out for awhile, how are you just discovering it?” Well like I said, I wasn’t one clamoring for Bowie releases. I know he’s legendary and touched a great deal of people on a spiritual/emotional level. His longevity and more impressively, relevance is just a testament to his music and power. Also he had dope cameo in Zoolander. Anyway, I saw the music video for “Blackstar” yesterday trending on YouTube, plus I knew one of my favorite drummers (WE WILL GET TO HIM) appeared on the album, so why not. Watching this video was an experience I haven’t had in such a long time. Everything from the visuals to the incredible music was perfectly blended together. I decided that the next day at work, I would listen to the whole project.
You know what, let’s pause here. I wanna talk about the negative(s) quickly because they are so minute and excusable that I want this short paragraph to seem like a throwaway. There’s too much saxophone. There are horn arrangements in some songs that are great but I feel like anytime there’s a section that needs a solo or some space to be filled in, here comes Donny (McCaslin) tootin’ away. To be fair, dude’s a beast, he doesn’t overplay and the solos fit the vibe of the songs. I think swap out one or two of the sax solos with a guitar and we’re golden.
This is the part where I talk about the greatness of this project.
SORRY NORTH, BLACKSTAR IS THE GREATEST STAR OF ALL TIME.
(-1 for overused Kanye meme)
The album kicks off with the near ten minute journey called “Blackstar” sometimes characterized like ““. It begins very chordal with strings and a little woodwinds in a very light yet deliberate manner. You get a couple bass notes before the drums come in. It’s 14 seconds. That is all you get before you realize what you just dove into. I would say the beginning of this song is characterized by lush long tones sitting behind Mark Guiliana retiring drummers everywhere. At the beginning the drums go from a beat more akin to drum’n’bass to a more straight forward, almost hoppy feel. It’s amazing. What Mark does perfectly is not overplay these types of beats especially when others (me) might but that’s why he’s a professional and I’m writing in sweatpants. Around the 3:50 mark, I’m tempted to say there is a drum solo but it just fits so perfectly while displaying extreme technical proficiency that I’ll call it a drum break. This is also where the song devolves but then transitions to a groove-filled 4/4 feel with some tasty bass playing (I HERE YOU TIM! Go check out anything with his name on it, he’s funky). Like the rest of the instrumentation, Bowie’s vocals float over top and this is a great example of vocals being used as an instrument. The melody of the lyrics fits well over the the “simple” production. Simple really isn’t the right word. The instrumental makes way for a more involved drum performance but lays the foundation for the rest of the song…so pretty much making great music 101. Background vocals that seem to be treated with studio effects round out the song well. Perfect amount of sax/10.
I will not be going into as much depth about the other songs because…well we’ll see but the Cavs/Knicks game is about to come on.
Next up is “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore.” Super dance-able and jammy(?). This song has a lot less vocals but it doesn’t matter because you just want to move. There is a lot of cool, layered background harmonies whenever Bowie decides to sings but when he decides to just dance in the studio…saxophone. Once again it fits because it feels like any of the numerous times I’ve been in/witnessed a show with a band who just wanted their saxophone player to just let loose. I loved this song.
“Lazarus” is the second longest song on this album and while not as lit (can’t believe I did that) as the first two, it is every bit as good. Beautifully composed and arrangement decisions are made that are neither boring or predictable. It also seems to be one of the more emotional vocal performances as Ziggy longs for freedom like a blue bird. The song continues to build throughout but about three-fourths of the way, Bowie could no longer express himself with words so he turns it over to the sax. It’s a soaring and actually pretty epic but at this point the horns have been carrying the instrumental aaaand I’m over it. Oversaxuration or Oversaxualization? It is almost stadium-like before it is reeled in and wrapped up nicely.
Me during the next song:
“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is probably my favorite song on the album. Mark is crushing it again with more of his drum’n’bass style drumming. It’s mesmerizing but it’s no secret (OBVIOUSLY) that I’ve been a huge fan of Guiliana’s for years. The guitars give this a heavy prog rock and grungy feel but never loses it’s groove. The rhythmic melody is super tight held together wonderfully by the musicians. On the flip side there’s an airiness, randomness and dissonance about the accompanying synths that bring a nice EDM flair coupled with the drums. There is an awesome instrumental part at 3:10 that is worth noting. David Bowie’s singing here is pretty cool as they soar over top of the track. High energy and the perfect balance of technicality, groove and weirdness definitely make this a highlight of Blackstar.
Holy moly. This is long. Nobody is gonna read this. If you are still here, I give you this Completely Unrelated Banger as a bathroom break.
Only three more to go. Hang in there.
“Girl Loves Me” is the stank face song. My head was hard bobbing, I was snapping on every snare hit and I audibly yelled “WOOO” a couple times. For some reason, I feel like this song lends itself to visuals the most. It feels kind of haunting and creeping like something you’d hear in a giant empty mansion or in the woods being chased by whatever (even if this isn’t what the song is about at all). Nice orchestral string swells fill out the song with again more fantastic drumming (I sound like a broken record). Vocals oscillate from lower in the mix to suddenly not all, which add to the story-like feel of the song. Turn the lights out, throw the surround sound on and ask where Monday goes.
There is always that one song….
“Dollar Days” is fine. It is pretty straight-forward with some fine melodic choices in the instrumental and singing that…fine. BUT THEN ANOTHER SAX SOLO. If I never hear sax on this album again, I’d be fine. Let’s just move on.
I like the finale to Blackstar. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is a mid-tempo dancy number with an easily sung chorus (I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING. I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING…AWAAAYYYY). It feels inspirational despite the lyrics. More sax but it’s fine…I guess, not really. It fits because there is like one verse and then Bowie repeats the title a bunch. Small break and then we’re back but this time there are nice guitar licks where once was saxophone. It’s actually a really great way to close an album.
I really loved this album and by the time I finished writing this giant essay, I’d have listened to each song a whole bunch of times. This project was not what I expected and excellently made. The drumming (last time, I promise) was really special and elevated the whole project to another level that may not have been attainable with someone less creative. This is probably my favorite album that has been released (relatively) recently. David Bowie’s generational talent affected so many with his music and I feel like I finally get it. It is definitely sad that my introduction came literally at the last moment and we won’t be able to see where he continues to evolve. Rest easy sir and congrats creating truly touching and transcendent art.
Congrats you made it. I haven’t written anything this long since I was in school which means grammatical mistakes all over the place. I’m gonna go eat some Fruity Pebbles.