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Bowie's "Blackstar" is a bewitching masterpiece

ISO / Columbia
"Blackstar" is David Bowie's 28th and final album.
Fertile Ground Compost Service
Rusty's Score
5
5 Rustys

ALBUM REVIEW: David Bowie –  "Blackstar (ISO Records) 2016

This is the Blackstar Event …

What David Bowie has done (some call it "The Blackstar Working") will be studied for years to come. In the depths of dealing with cancer and pain, he crafts his final masterpiece, an album that now ranks in my top albums of all time. I cannot emphasize that enough.

Admittedly, it was several days after the death of David Bowie that I actually listened to what would be his final album –  , or simply Blackstar.

The news of Bowie's death, of course, came as a complete shock to the millions who loved him and admired his work of over 50 years. To think that just two days earlier I had been on a local radio show wishing him happy birthday. And now he was gone.

And while I was excited about Bowie’s recent album The Next Day, I was even more eager to hear Blackstar, particularly after viewing the haunting video of the title track that was released in November.

2016: A SPACE ODDITY

So, I first listened to Blackstar in its entirety while watching the final 40-or-so minutes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was the film that inspired Bowie to write the 1969 hit “Space Oddity” which would garner him international attention.

The release of the “Space Oddity” single took place just days before America sent Apollo 11 to the Moon, an event some conspiracy theorists believe was filmed and produced – with NASA’s budgetary assistance – by Kubrick himself! (Note The Shining and Room 237).

It is here that I should offer a personal note. In 1984 (which also happens to be the title of a song Bowie wrote for his 1974 Diamond Dogs album) I saw 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the amazing sequel to 2001. I had never seen anything like it. I immediately watched 2001 on VHS and then read the Arthur C. Clarke novel of 2001 which I checked out of the school library.

It was upon reading Clarke’s book that I decided I wanted to be a writer. Both Bowie and I had found real inspiration in this magical Kubrick/Clarke creation, something I didn’t realize until many years later.

So, when a sync friend noted that he had synced Blackstar with 2001 starting at the end of the film’s intermission, I knew I had to watch it that way. Kubrick’s spirit is definitely present on Blackstar, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bowie’s lengthy career.

And so just as we return from the 2001 intermission, we find doomed astronaut David Bowman realizing that HAL, the onboard computer, has taken over and does not intend to have the true mission to Jupiter thwarted.

As this is happening the song “Blackstar” is beginning. Incredibly, the album and this final portion of the film (with a final repeat of “Blackstar” for good measure) sync beautifully together. It was all rather moving and gave the Blackstar experience added depth.

I have to say that in the more than 25 years that I have been writing music reviews for various publications, nothing – and I mean nothing – prepared me for  what I am calling “The Blackstar Event. A magical working that is still revealing itself through the music and the man.

This jazz-influenced, seven-track album, released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, is being widely acclaimed by critics, although early reviews noted that there seemed to be the spectre of death hanging over the proceedings. This album is a puzzle, admittedly. So, I've been playing it nonstop for days, trying to figure out the clues, not unlike playing Beatles or Led Zeppelin albums backwards, seeking esoteric information. My fascination with Bowie's abilities is further noted here.

This whole Blackstar Event has left me (and many others - it is the number one album in US) spellbound. Producer Tony Visconti said, after Bowie's death was announced, that Blackstar was a "parting gift" to his many fans. Note how his last name is spelled out in pieces of the black star on the album cover. 

Yes. it’s an album of life … and death. A man’s life coming full circle. I have been listening to Blackstar non-stop, for days, trying to crack the code Bowie left behind. Many of my comrades in the sync community – of which I am a part – have taken plenty of stabs at it, as have I. Perhaps we’ll never really know. And the mystery endures.

Amazingly (and not surprisingly), the day of  his exit from this earthly plane, Bowie left behind a “double rainbow” over Manhattan, the island he called home.

Blackstar, I should note, is not just a mere record album. It is much more than that. It’s a message. An event. The stunning and courageous final act of one of the most brilliant entertainers and public figures of our era.

I truly believe that the name “David Bowie” will be known hundreds of years from now, while most of the so-called “celebrities” of our day will be long forgotten.

As I noted earlier, I first listened to Blackstar in its entirety while watching the final 40-or-so minutes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I am glad I did. It gave the album more power than I imagined.

I should also point out a piece I wrote called "Floating in the most peculiar way," noting Apollo, "Major Tom" and more. Bowie on the brain in the months leading up to the release of Blackstar and his unexpected death.

CARCOSA

Perhaps I should rewind a little, back to October, when my brother and I went to a place called Fort Macomb, just east of New Orleans, where the final scenes in the first season of True Detective were filmed. This is where "Carcosa" was located. This is where the character Rustin Cohle encounters a black hole or portal in this important scene. What Cohle is seeing is never fully explained. And that's an appealing part of the Carcosa mystery.

I wrote a bit about this in my sync piece "The yellow store." 

Having reviewed Bowie's "best of" collection Nothing Has Changed last year, I looked back at it and even then I sensed something important was brewing with Bowie. Little did the world know that at the time the collection was released, Bowie's cancer diagnosis had been made. 

I wrote in November 2014: "Take a look at the photo of a latter-day Bowie on the front cover. A man who stares in the mirror at his reflection, like Narcissus. A man who has seen and experienced some truly remarkable things – incredible success and creativity, a meshing of art and music as no other has accomplished, varied musical styles, self-reinvention and fame, fame.

The CD inserts include other images of Bowie looking at his reflection at various points in his career. The mirror is a powerful object, of course. Since ancient times, mirrors and reflective surfaces have been used for purposes of divination, magic and repelling evil. Dr. John Dee, the Elizabethan occultist and magician was known for using a crystal egg and black obsidian mirror for divination."

The Blackstar Event,” as I’m now calling it, really hit me hard and in a deep part of my being. It’s been very emotional. But it’s also been cathartic.

One of the few friends I had in my high school and college days who was a Bowie fan as well – the late musician Carter Albrecht – recorded a beautiful and heartfelt album shortly before his untimely death in September 2007. I listened to Jesus Is Alive … And Living in London only two or three times after Carter’s death and I never picked it up again. It was just too difficult. Too painful to listen to those songs and know that he was gone.

And wouldn’t you know it? It was David Bowie and Blackstar that actually convinced me to go and pull out Carter’s album after more than eight years and really let the songs wash over me. It was like Carter was alive and in the room with me. It was powerful, I must admit.

On to Blackstar ... 

A still from David Bowie's haunting "Lazarus" video.

1.     " (“Blackstar”) 

When I first saw the video for "Blackstar" back in November, I wrote a piece about it, in part, noting: And I loved it because it felt like Bowie was channeling ideas and themes from Twin Peaks (including Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which he appears in) but also the strange, cult mythology of Carcosa and The Yellow King as featured in the first season of True Detective."

And while that was my initial interpretation of this utterly haunting, 10-minute track, with the off-kilter, Twin Peaks-y jazz sounds (thanks to sax player Donny McCaslin and his jazz combo) and trip-hop layers, in the days since David Bowie's death I have come to see it on an even deeper level. 

Sings Bowie: "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 / Your eyes / On the day of execution, on the day of execution / Only women kneel and smile, ah-ah, ah-ah / At the centre of it all, at the centre of it all / Your eyes, your eyes / Ah-ah-ah / Ah-ah-ah"

Later in the song: "Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside / Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / (I’m a blackstar, I’m a star's star, I’m a blackstar)"

As Carl Jung said: " “Don’t hold on to someone who’s leaving, otherwise you won’t meet the one who’s coming.”

2.     Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”

With a title taken from a 17th century English play, this one has a sly, restless feel about it, Bowie noting his "cock," among other things. Bowie is having a little fun with this one.

3.     Lazarus

This is another key track on Blackstar. Bowie is embracing the jazz/trip-hop sound (Mark Guiliana's drumming is spot on) with serrated guitars (Bowie and Ben Monder) and a vocal-matched-with-sax that reminds me of Little Jimmy Scott's version of "Sycamore Trees." Utterly surreal and yet so beautiful. "Look up here, I'm in heaven," Bowie sings, fully knowing the end is near. "I've got scars that can't be seen / I've got drama, can't be stolen / Everybody knows me now."

4.     “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)”

We heard the original version of this song on the Nothing Has Changed compilation. The line "The clinic called / the X-ray's fine" takes on new meaning. 

5.     “Girl Loves Me”

A long-time fan of Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange and the Nadsat "language" used as the backing band marches ahead in a fashion reminiscent of Bowie's late 70's Berlin period or of the somewhat perplexing material on 1995's Outside. "Where the fuck did Monday go," gives the listener the sense that Bowie is shocked at how quickly time is passing, something that hits home a bit harder now that we know what he was facing.

6.     “Dollar Days"

The melancholy and dreamy jazz opening music to this song evokes the music performed by Mogwai, Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet for the soundtrack to Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006). It is Bowie's heartfelt honesty is evident on this track that slays me every time I hear it, especially as Bowie sings "I'm dying to ...": "If I'll never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see / I’m dying to / Push their backs against the grain / And fool them all again and again." Bowie's voice fades out, repeating "I'm dying to," as if he has already left us. Gives me chills every time I hear it.

7.     “I Can’t Give Everything Away” 

The album closer is essentially Bowie's final message. His good-bye to all. He shares a lot here but there are things we will never know about our musical hero. 

"I know something is very wrong / The pulse returns the prodigal son / The blackout hearts, the flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes / I can't give everything away ..."

Again, I will be listening to Blackstar for years to come, likely uncovering things I had not noticed before. Thank you, David Bowie, for this amazing musical gift. You will never be forgotten.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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