January’s UK/European Album of the month is David Bowie’s final release before his passing last Monday, January 11 2016, ★ (Blackstar), a final farewell gift to the world Bowie graced all so amicably.
This jazz-oriented album has subtle hints of the conscious Hip Hop that connected with Bowie during his 18-month battle with cancer and serves as a deceptively warming listen invoking the themes of spirituality, life and ultimately death.
It was widely reported Bowie saw Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly as a direct inspiration in the sound and overall feel of the LP, with K-Dot’s masterfully spectral jazz compositions seeping through consistently throughout the album.
The set opens with the title track, a 10-minute rendition of elegant melodies backed up by a fast paced drum machine beat, with Bowie subtly caressing with his familiar charm. Around halfway through the song takes a drastic turn in tempo and rhythm, slowing down to an enchanting uplifting harmony of Bowie professing ‘I’m a Blackstar, I’m not a gangster.’ It manages to drag you in without completely understanding its message, leaving you confused yet in need of more, something Bowie has done better than anyone else during his five decades in music.
It’s worth noting when the instant reviews of the album were released by major news outlets (whilst he was still alive), none made the connection of Bowie’s impending passing, despite the heavy use of religious and death themed lyrical content. The wonderfully sedating “Lazarus” opens with the line, ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven.’
It seems Bowie’s theatrical demise and exit once again fooled us all in a time when keeping secrets hidden is nigh on impossible due to the ever watchful eye of social media, yet the clues were clearly evident for all to see. Even the video to “Lazarus” shows Bowie lying down on what seems like a hospital bed, bandaged and trembling before departing into a wardrobe.
It completely summarizes Bowie’s artistic value as a man so passionate and in tune with his art, that not even the painful stricken demon of cancer could halt his vision.
“Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” is pure infectious blazing guitars complimented by the echoing of some captivating brass solos in between verses that makes for a great dance-floor number with a lot of character.
“Girl Loves Me” and “Dollar Days” then bring us back crashing to reality with utter calmness and relaxation. The eccentric saxophone solo by Donny McCaslin (on “Dollar Days”) is worth a mention on its own, seemingly bringing sunshine and joy to what would’ve been bitterly emotional recording sessions during its production.
The final track (“I Can’t Give Everything Away”) then delicately, yet with pulsating panache, takes hold through a dance tempo beat and hypnotizing harmonica (played by Bowie himself) with dazzling string arrangements adding to its allure. This is the most inspiring and utterly enthralling track of the album, a sincere moment culminating Bowie’s unquestionable influence on everything he graces. The lyrics “I know something is very wrong, the pulse returns for prodigal sons. The blackout’s hearts with flowered news, with skull designs upon my shoes” send shivers down the spine, as if he’s almost personally saying farewell and is accepting of his decease.
This album will live long in memory not just for its infamy as being Bowie’s final album, rather it’s Bowie’s furthest departure from pop and his most extreme and challenging piece of work in possibly his whole career, both musically and physically. For it to this week reach number one in the UK and US is a fitting reward for a man who will continue to innovate and inspire us all.
Only David Bowie could make dying such a sensational piece of art.