When the video for ‘Blackstar’ initially popped up on music journalism websites and Facebook news feeds across the globe, I took no notice of it. I solemnly vowed to myself to avoid any material, any single releases from David Bowie’s mysterious new album*. Looking back, I think my reasoning behind this was to not only build a violent anticipation within me for the album but to truly absorb the impact of the shocking surprises in store**.
I must confess however, that I did sneak in an audio preview of ‘Blackstar’ on my way to Work. Exiting the house, the swelling of ominous, unnerving strings behind shimmering guitar noodling haunted me as I walked through the humid overcast ambience of my street at 10am. ‘In the villa of Ormen***, stands a solitary candle’ David Bowie prophetically crooned as if he is struggling with every word under some kind of oppressive dark force through sinister bass throbs, whirling synthetic glitches and a propelling, flourishing drum groove. I, the only passenger of the 990 Bus stared out the window, hypnotically entranced by this morbid jazz concoction, the sun obscured behind a scattering of clouds. Slowly and surely, an uplifting string section transported me out of a dark dirge into a blissful and theatrical sonnet. ‘Somebody else took his place and bravely cried!’ a solitary, passionate voice proclaimed as if possessed by some divine force. A simplistic drum romp guided me through the growing gloom that gradually consumed the soothing strings and lead me back into the dark depths of the villa of Ormen with an ingenious reprise of the song’s introduction.
I was undoubtedly impressed and absolutely frightened. ‘Blackstar’ revealed a glimpse to the mystifying canvas David Bowie had crafted in the shadows, out of sight of music journalists and the public eye, much like the 2013 comeback ‘The Next Day’*****. While ‘The Next Day’ felt like an injection of nostalgia and an eclectic return to form, ‘Blackstar’ is a furious and melancholy creature unleashed.
Through out the course of the album, David Bowie effortlessly switches from overwhelming brutality and fury towards the World around him to frustration and exhaustion of his own humanity.
‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ rampages with a relentless and frenetic drum groove and a chaotic and unsettling horn section propelling underneath dramatic and visceral lyrics inspired by the 17th Century play of the same name***** while ‘Lazarus’ simmers with soulful, introspective lyrics written from the perspective of David Bowie’s Thomas Gerome Newton character from ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. The song itself was initially written for an Off-Broadway production written by David Bowie called ‘Lazarus’******. Despite this, the song seamlessly slots into the canon of the album, depicting the fallen self-proclaimed prophet of the album’s title track as a man grappling with his loss of his identity.
‘Blackstar’ is a miraculous balancing act, gracefully entwining ambition and complexity to heighten the emotional intensity of the album’s many twists and turns from the Art-Pop balladry of closer ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ and ‘Lazarus’ to the chaotic Jazz freakouts of ‘’Tis a Pity…’ and ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime). Beneath the abstract lyricism and claustrophobic instrumentation that may seem utterly confusing at first, lies an engaging, breathtaking experience that illuminates it’s obscured mysteries with multiple listens.
*I am pretty sure I put my right hand to my chest while doing this.
**unsurprising considering this is David Bowie we are talking about.
***upon further research, Ormen is a name of a village in Norway. In Old Norse, it means ‘Serpent’.
****giving this album a listen, let alone his entire back catalogue is not necessary for optimum enjoyment. However, if you are going to do a little background check on the dude, I recommend these albums will help you: the Thin White Duke’s final outing on Station to Station (1976), the reuniting of David Bowie and Brian Eno on Outside (1995) and probably The Next Day (2013) just to give yourself a nice little warm up.
*****Written by John Ford, the play was highly controversial mainly due the incestuous relationship being the centre of the plot that ends in tragedy as the brother (Giovanni) stabs his sister (Annabella) in her chest. He then proceeds to interrupt a feast with the heart of his sister in hand, reveals the relationship to his peers and Annabella’s suitor, Soranzo. A large chunk of the plot is also covered in the song ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).
******upon further, further research, I found a video of Michael C Hall performing the song on the Colbert Report which features a simultaneously hilarious and impressive David Bowie impression. You can view the video here and satisfy your morbid curiosity!