Pre-orders are now live for the Lazarus Cast Album, featuring the cast and band of the original New York production performing their versions of the David Bowie songs from the show, out October 21st on ISO / Columbia Records. The album also includes three final David Bowie studio recordings, two of which are streaming now.Continue reading
I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t ready to hear this record right now or to write this review. I was not ready to learn David Bowie had died of cancer, and that this already rough start 2016 had already dealt my mental musical Parthenon another harsh blow. Before I was laid low by these events, I was intrigued by the ‘Lazarus’ music video and pre-ordered Blackstar (Columbia/ RCA) on Amazon. But I hadn’t played the album one time in a busy weekend. And then once the news came down, I retreated to what most do in these cases, share my sorrow publicly and played my favorites on a loop for a few days. Mainly relegated to what is on my old iPod Classic 160 GB, my portable Bowie collection is mainly the 70s albums I grew up on (Diamond Dogs, Station To Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger, my 1990s favorite Outside, and some obligatory hits here and there I’m sure everyone else knows well. I wasn’t sure how to approach this final album review from an artist I admired all my life, knowing this was the last new thing I would ever hear from him. I laid down in bed for the first few listens. Just in bed in the dark with my headphones on.
As much an album rooted in Bowie’s entire oeuvre, ‘Blackstar’ is equally an album that would have come from a future timeline or reality. The epic title track opens things up and is almost like a little elctronica-based rock operetta. It chirps to life at once, but soon morphs into a gorgeous, almost Gospel rock-inflected anthem. The third motif in the middle section has the grit and grace of any great rock song the man ever put down on wax. Vocally and lyrically alone, the performance moved me to tears right away. Of course these ominous whooshing churchly vocals, swelling and brooding horns and reeds, right along side with lyrics about life, death, fame and rebirth heard in the context of knowing he had died surely hit me harder than it would have otherwise. That doesn’t make this track any less amazing.
The rest of the album flirts with an array of stylistic choices. The powerful uptempo beat of ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ comes with a subtle Sun-Ra style discordant beauty to it. A chaos that flirts with ruin, but holding together by a thread of greatness. David’s voice is just magical, and harkening back to his earliest work in a lot of ways. Donny McCaslin’s brass work just crushes on this track.
‘Lazarus’ is a song that along with its companion video will be analyzed, deconstructed and perhaps books will be written about for the next few decades I would imagine. The somber balladry of the tune can barely stand up to the titanic lyrics. It was hearing the collected writing of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross set to song. No doubt anyone who heard the track when it came out, saw it in a different light after David’s death. The eerie lyrics are not just prophecy, they are spooky real. Like a manifest from the before the grave. Many artists wrote with their own death as a specter in their life that was all too real to them. Hank Williams Sr., Warren Zevon, Frank Zappa, and hell, evenin the tragic case of Jeff Buckley; he must have “felt like he was dying since the day he was born” in the purest sense. Bowie was clearly leaving no illusions to chance with this track, so present and bare and raw about the sum of his life coming to a bittersweet end. And you never want the track to end, but it does as well.
At this point, after a track like ‘Lazurus’, it starts to be hard to even track quality on a real scale that has meaning, but I will press on. In a change of pace and tone ‘Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)’ is a slick blend of those killer collaborations with Brian Eno, but via the centrifuge of the many who followed in those massive footsteps too like Nine Inch Nails or more recently, Puscifer. ‘Girl Loves Me’ has a creeping rhythm and a call and response refrain. The full expanse of his singing range, including a not often enough heard vamp in his bass register is a thrill and treat. This song will find its fans, but really it’s just slightly above filler.
‘Dollar Days’ again finds us in familiar ground. Almost a call back to his earlier work: a deceptive, emotional, subversive, brilliant pop song. And lyrically again, so final and so very sad, it will break your heart to hear it. Special note goes to the piano work of Jason Lindner.
As the penultimate track evolves via a danceable beat into the beautiful final cut, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’. It is the sound of an acceptance an artist saying goodbye forever. It would seem that the sentiment of the title is quite the opposite in reality. On Blackstar, Bowie left nothing behind or unsaid; if anything it’s a bit esoteric. Not just in a sense of this album, but his career and his life. And I am still not ready for this. And neither are you.
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