I’m glad that this album was released a few days before Bowie’s death, rather than a few days after, as it meant that all the critical acclaim it received upon release was based on the content of the album, not sympathy or sentimentality. It’s certainly true that his death makes you listen to the album in a different light, and particularly interpret the lyrics in a different way, but even on first listen, before the news, it was clear that this is a remarkable album.
Rather than slip into retreading old glories, as many aging rockers do, Bowie experimented through to the end. For Blackstar he collaborated with a jazz quartet, apparently under the influence of Kendrick Lamar’s impressive 2015 record To Pimp a Butterfly. The resultant album is different from anything he’s done before, and a challenging listen. The opening title track clocks in at nearly 10 minutes, and is glorious, the first half channeling Scott Walker’s recent work, the second half more typical late period Bowie.
Following that opener, the jazz influence really kicks in on tracks like ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ and ‘Girl Loves Me’ Conventional song structures and melodies are few and far between (single Lazarus being as close as it gets) and it will almost certainly take a few listens to really get into, but it will reward those with the patience to keep listening. ‘Dollar Days’ the penultimate track, is perhaps best of all.
Musically dense and rich, lyrically unbelievably poignant, Blackstar is an album that shows Bowie continued to be an experimenter and innovator right to the end. It is perhaps the best album he released in my lifetime (although Scary Monsters came out when I was 6 months old, so perhaps not quite) and is album of the month purely on merit, not because of Bowie’s his death.