David Bowie — the genre-bending, iconoclastic, legendary songwriter — passed away on Sunday. It was just two days after his 69th birthday, on which he also released his 27th studio album, Blackstar. Bowie always rocked to the beat of his own drum — look no further than his numerous personas, such as Ziggy Stardust, the bisexual alien rock star; Halloween Jack, from his 1974 album Diamond Dogs; the Thin White Duke, and so on — and Blackstar is no exception. Bowie managed to distill his musical ideals into one compact album before his passing, an inspiring culmination of his entire career.
Blackstar melds Bowie’s sensual and ambiguous lyrics, deeply rooted in symbols, with a heavy jazz influence. Recorded in three months at the beginning of 2015, the seven-track album clocks in at just over 41 minutes, and a quarter of that time alone is dedicated to the opening title track. Throughout its duration, the album naturally blends opposites: lyrics deliver distinct images and ambiguous assertions, obscure references and clear points; the music mixes John Zorn-esque improvisations with familiar chord progressions and screaming guitar solos.
Bowie recruited New York City-based saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his bandmates (drummer Mark Guilliana, bassist Tim Lefebvre and pianist Jason Lindner) to lend their Grammy-nominated chops to the project, resulting in lush musical textures — complex syncopated drum beats, funky grooving bass lines, deep otherworldly keyboard warblings and free-jazz-meets-rock-and-roll sax solos. Drawing inspiration from Kendrick Lamar’s jazz-influenced hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly, Bowie and longtime producer Tony Visconti reimagined the pop-music landscape with their already long-standing admiration for jazz. “David and I had long had a fascination for Stan Kenton and Gil Evans,” Mr. Visconti told The New York Times, speaking of two legendary jazz orchestrators. “We always saw pop and rock as something we were quite capable of doing, but we always held the jazz gods on a pedestal above us.” Bowie’s own fascination with jazz music started much earlier though, and before he plunged into the world of rock music, his first instrument, as a preteen, was the saxophone. Blackstar isn’t just a hybrid, though. To call it jazz-fusion or jazz-rock would miss the point entirely. All of Bowie’s influences and impulses have come together in an inward musical world that doesn’t pander to the pop-music canon.
In the title track, mysticism and ritual chant interplay with skipping drums and smooth, free saxophone interjections. Yet later, Bowie’s voice, accompanied by outer-space harp-like arpeggios, comes at the listener as if through a cloud when it says, “Something happened on the day he died.” The two musical worlds melt together as the 10-minute track comes to an end, ending in an undulating primordial mix of reverb and reed sounds. The third track, “Lazarus,” retains the spacey groove, drenched with reverb and echo, but employs a powerfully simple rock intro. This gives way to repeated descending sax lines, setting a stage for Bowie’s words: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven,” a timely message that, now after an 18-month battle with cancer, is more meaningful than ever. By the end of the song, Bowie seems to reassure listeners when he says, “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free.” In “Girl Loves Me,” Bowie pushes the boundaries further as he melds lyrics that are half Nadsat (the fictional language from A Clockwork Orange), half Polari (slang used in gay clubs in 1970s London). Perhaps the most poignant message on the album, as Bowie reflects on the end of his life, is in the penultimate track, when Bowie says, “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see.”
A beautiful musical work with uncompromised vision, Blackstar is a transcendent capstone to David Bowie’s creative output. Tony Visconti said of Bowie’s passing, “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life — a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.”