- 08 Jan 21
Five years ago today, David Bowie released his final studio album, Blackstar – just two days before his death. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting our original review of the album, published in Hot Press in 2016.
What we know now and what we didn’t know then...
Listening to a preview of Blackstar a few weeks before Christmas at Sony’s Dublin offices was, even at the time, an unsettling experience. There was something disquieting about the title-track in particular and the dissonant, avant-jazz backdrop of much of the album, which was at odds with the seasonal mood outside. With hindsight it’s easy to see why – but in truth (and despite more than a few lyrical clues) few, if any of us, copped what was going on: that this was to be David Bowie’s swansong. His final curtain call and the abrupt end to a remarkable, unequalled half-century career.
Recorded in secret with Toni Visconti once again at the helm, Bowie’s 25th studio album was just as unexpected as his surprise return with The Next Day nearly three years ago. If anything, it was even more calculated than the latter.
Familiar as the theme tune for the Sky drama The Last Panthers, the title track with that video and its “zombie” imagery and ethereal atmosphere has already been analysed, debated and de-constructed for clues that now seem glaringly obvious. ‘Blackstar’ is haunting and epic at 10 minutes long and showcases an artist still determined to push sonic barriers and challenge possibilities. Beginning with sparse backing, a disembodied, chant-like vocal, meandering, parping saxophone and a vaguely drum ‘n’ bass rhythm, it transforms halfway through into a more melodic and quite gorgeous thing. It’s vintage Bowie, combining his gift for dramatic flourishes and penchant for unexpected twists and turns. And then there’s that lyric: “Something happened on the day he died...” Indeed it did!
Similarly backdropped, albeit with a more early Roxy Music influence, ‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore’ finds his voice sounding very much as it did on 1983’s ‘China Girl’, on a tune that takes its title from a 17th century John Ford-written tragedy.
Bowie could still have come up with an accessible pop song or two if he’d wanted to – he was a great singles artist after all and no stranger to chart action. But despite the promise of the second part of the opening track, he largely opts for jazzy, experimental art-rock that, at times can be challenging for the unsuspecting listener. Unlike the best of his earlier work which seemed to arrive fully-formed, you can hear the hard slog and the effort that went into these recordings. Still, there are moments of sheer brilliance: in particular, ‘Lazarus’ – now, of course replete with heavy symbolism – packs in a martial drum pattern, pulsating bass, creeping saxophone and another terrific vocal performance.
‘Dollar Days’ is a lush, hazy ballad with piano and acoustic guitars: his poignant words now seem heartbreakingly prophetic: “If I never see England’s evergreens I’m running to... it’s nothing to me.” The mid-tempo rocker ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ – which appears to be some kind of surrender – offers dense layers and textures with an engaging, almost ‘Heroes’-like chorus. The brooding, hypnotic ‘Girl Loves Me’ leans towards the orchestral, with soaring strings, while the oddly-titled ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime’) is a heavily syncopated, almost funky workout.
Right now, it’s impossible to separate Blackstar from the unprecedented reaction to the shock death of its creator. It may not be Bowie’s best album – but, as a great swansong, it may prove to be his most significant.