Just A Blackstar Review

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I had been assigned to review this for a website, but since I didn’t get the record until 12:01am Friday morning, didn’t get to file it over the weekend as I had planned. I told my editor that I would get it to her on Monday during the day. But once I woke up on Monday, I had to write a whole new set of pieces, and this got set aside.

I actually did look at it on Tuesday, after I had posted an excerpt on Facebook, noting that it was going to be killed, given the circumstances. A couple of writers urged me to post it anyway. Plans to publish it at its original home fell through, and at this point it makes no sense — but I did want to commemorate it here.

David Bowie has mastered the modern music business landscape as well as (or even better than) anyone. The Next Day dropped without any clue whatsoever; his PR firm’s warning that a record was going to drop in the overnight and that the newsroom might want to be prepared had the editors guessing every other artist except Bowie. One song added to a greatest hits anthology rated detailed reviews of the one song in media outlets around the world. And the lead up to Blackstar was marked, measured and controlled to the nth degree, all of this for a 40-minute seven-track jazz-flavored collaboration that leans on a saxophone as the core instrument.

“Blackstar” as the opening track might seem like a misguided idea; it’s almost 10 minutes long, and when you listen to it in the context of the record, it will initially feel like it’s two separate songs, and you might think it would work better as the last track of the record. That will shift with repeated listenings, and the track will find its place and you’ll get more comfortable with it. It’s uncanny how catchy the song is, how its myriad sections will get stuck in your brain on a loop, as though it was the lightest, simplest pop song.

“‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is sad and angry and gruff; listen to it on headphones to catch the heavy breathing at the song’s start, rough and louche in the best way.

“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” was the bonus track on 2014’s anthology Nothing Has Changed, but it’s welcome here in this collection. It’s also the most successful jazz execution that also still sounds 100% like a David Bowie song. “Girl Loves Me” has a gigantic “EXPLICIT” attached to the title, and you wonder what could possibly rate that, and then the “Where the fuck did Monday go?” refrain kicks in along with the backbeat. “Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?” It will repeat in your head for days.

“Lazarus” is one of a handful of songs written for the Bowie musical of the same name currently playing Off Broadway that survived the cut. Lazarus the musical has its issues but the song is not one of them. It’s a great song in the production and it’s still a great song here on the record; it’s also the only straight-ahead rock song in the batch. But it’s haunting and huge and you could dismiss it as classic Bowie, the kind of thing he could write in his sleep–but why on earth is that a bad thing? It’s unmistakable but it’s also not just flatly derivative. (And Michael S. Hall does an admirable job with the performance.)

Saxophone dominates the record in a surprising fashion, given that it’s not a straight ahead rock and roll record and isn’t a straight ahead jazz record, either. But it’s no wonder that Bowie would come back to the instrument here and now; it was his first instrument, and he never stopped loving it and never managed to master it. But he employed it, early and often, to memorable effect, and he’s not stopping now. This can be good, and it can also be unfortunate; the sax on “Dollar Days” sounds like it’s off a bad Billy Joel outtake that got lost somewhere on Baker Street.

Where Blackstar falls down is as a cohesive statement. It feels like a random collection of songs because that’s what it is, and that’s unfortunate coming on the heels of The Next Day, which absolutely felt like an album. (Hindsight is now 20-20; this review was largely complete before Bowie’s untimely demise late Sunday night. Now some things make more sense.)

When does a trend-setter get to stop setting trends, and just be allowed to create? The expectations of anything that has the name “Bowie” attached to it are always sky high, and that hasn’t tapered in almost 50 years of the man producing art. We’ve decided–he’s trained us to expect– that whatever he does has to break the mold, it has to be haute, it has to be the nth of whatever the particular art is. If we can let Sting put out a record about the shipbuilding culture in Newcastle and take it seriously, we can let fucking David Bowie put out a free range jazz collaboration, especially when the latter is strong and challenging and in several cases, actually fucking great.