Album Review: David Bowie – ? (Blackstar)

By on Tuesday, 12th January 2016 at 12:00 pm

Before this review managed to be published to the everlasting internet, something that no-one could have been expecting in their wildest dreams happened. David Bowie sang us his last song. The words below in this review take on more meaning and the depth to which this album touches upon, such as eternal living, being reborn and taking your final bow are apt more than ever. This is what he wanted. To the very end, he was an artiste who lived doing exactly what he wanted. We should celebrate everything that he represented for over 50 years. Go, buy a Bowie record (Rough Trade are donating every penny from a Bowie record purchased with them to Cancer Research UK), immortalise the man who sold the world and enjoy this final read.


David Bowie Blackstar album coverNow on his 25th album, there’s not a whole lot of things left that David Bowie hasn’t attempted. In his 69th year on this earth, he’s finally given us something we neither knew we needed or wanted and that is a record that, if you really had to define, at its most common points is jazz. Of course, calling it jazz would to be doing both Bowie and the genre a dishonour. Bowie simply does not abide by normal conventions, and that is exactly why we love him.

The album itself is just shy of an hour long at 52 minutes, which is impressive considering it totals only 7 tracks. Seven tracks of pure, unadulterated Bowie-jazz. Conjuring imagery of a dystopian future, where big cities are reminiscent of dirty metropolises. Opening title track and early single ‘Blackstar’ is the longest cut on the record at 9:58. It’s sprawling, haunting and at times you can get lost amongst it but for the most part it functions as a mood setter, an atmospheric palate cleanser so-to-speak. It gets you ready for the next six songs, and if you’re really struggling with this one watch the companion video that was released.


The use of an experimental jazz group, informally known as the Donny McCaslin Group, certainly gave a solid foundation for Bowie to craft this artwork upon. They pair well with the orchestral arrangement featured on a selection of the tracks, melding sonically to create a sound that is only fitting for this record.

‘Lazarus’ has been the biggest feature on the album so far, after spawning an off-Broadway play and a hauntingly apt video, it’s the most accessible cut for anyone looking for an easy way in. Fittingly for what has been described as an experimental jazz album, saxophone is used as a predominant feature, even with a sultry solo in the final quarter of the song, while in the lyrics Bowie could be describing very clearly what was his rise/fall/rise in the 1970s with his drug addiction. Lazarus itself, a tale of falling down to earth, is not new to him.


There are two familiar names on this new record, ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ and ’Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’, with both having been released previously as a stand alone 10” single for his last release, the compilation album ‘Nothing Has Changed’. Here they have been re-recorded, and in particular, ‘Sue…’ has become a more ferocious reworking. There is much more urgency in the instrumentation, where it builds and builds to a crescendo featuring a barrage of noises, from synthesisers and guitar feedback.

‘Girl Loves Me’ harks back to Bowie’s obsession with Nadsat, the fictional language from Anthony Burgess’ novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’. With the bulk of the lyrics written using this, along with added Polari (slang used in gay culture in the 1960s), it’s hard to truly decipher, but the prowling percussion and rhythm section create an aggressive surrounding that helps you understand the feeling. ‘Dollar Days’ and ‘I Can’t Give You Everything’ are cut perfectly together, with the outro of the former leading perfectly into the latter. On ‘I Can’t…’, sparse harmonica introduces the finale that, if it were the last song on his last record ever, would be completely and utterly perfect.

He’s given us his mind and body for almost 50 years and at times this record can feel almost like a swan song. This is everything we could’ve expected from a Bowie album released in 2016. It’s developmental, experimental and odd. This was his farewell to us. Love this gift that the man who fell to earth bestowed upon us, for, as hard as it may be to realise, this is it.


David Bowie ‘?’ is out now via ISO, RCA (UK) and Columbia (US). For past articles on TGTF on the late, great visionary, go here.

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