On the closing track of Blackstar, David Bowie repeatedly sings “I can’t give everything away”. The artist may be telling us that he’s far from ready to retire, something we should be thankful for, given the bold character and the quality of the material on display here.
But this could also a statement that Bowie, who has made a career out of pushing the boundaries, isn’t willing to sell out: there is still something new to say and new ways to say it. A comfortable (and financially lucrative) path might be forged via greatest hits tours, remastering the back-catalogue and churning out songs that just rehash the ideas that have worked in the past. But Blackstar contains none of that; the album is a daring experimental work, uncomfortable at times, but hugely satisfying in its creative spirit.
Released in November, the title track is a good indication of the album as a whole (although at nearly ten minutes it is the longest of the songs and with a more elaborate arrangement). The alt-jazz, krautrock and electro influences flow through the record: unpredictable saxophones, irregular beats and fuzz guitars, with Bowie’s croon sailing over the top, it culminates in a moody, edgy collection of songs. Musically and lyrically, Bowie is revelling in the uncertainty of the world, with a delicious ambiguity running through everything.
It’s sometimes a bleak landscape and not always an easy listen, but it invites you to go back to make new discoveries, creating a very rewarding experience. The LP is also nicely structured, beginning with a sometimes discordant epic and ending with the lush lounge-syth of the closing track.
If anything is left wanting here, it’s missing a big radio-friendly belter, in the way that ‘Sound and Vision’ pops up on Low or the title track from Heroes, but an attempt at this might have ruined the aesthetic that Blackstar achieves.
If you revelled in the ground-breaking work Bowie was doing in the mid to late seventies and then dreamed what he might be up to forty years later, then Blackstar would be a worthy answer.
By Matthew Trainor