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David Bowie’s Blackstar

On the 8th January, on his 69th birthday, David Bowie released his new album titled Blackstar. On first impressions, ‘surreal’ may be a good word to use to describe many of the tracks of this album. The title track opens with echoed, slow vocals against a much quicker, hip-hop-like drum beat. This apparent mismatch between Bowie’s somewhat pained and wavering vocals and drums is seen to be repeated in the album, namely in Sue (Or In a Season of Crime), where Bowie’s sustained vocals are accompanied by a frantic drum track, not entirely unlike that of drum and bass. The modulation to the major in Blackstar, however, may seem familiar, sounding slightly more like some older Bowie songs in style, accompanied by a simple drum beat, synths and a string section.   

One of the most interesting things about Blackstar is David Bowie’s choice in choosing jazz artists to accompany on the album. Bowie is joined by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Mark Guiliana.  Bowie’s pianist Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebrve have previously played with Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) and Jamie Cullum, and were part of the house band for Saturday Night Live. Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, explained that “Having jazz guys play rock music turns it upside down and stopped Bowie from falling back on Rock clichés. The use of jazz musicians can be noted throughout, especially in tracks such as Blackstar and in a complex saxophone solo in I Can’t Give Everything Away. 

It was sadly announced on the 11th January that David Bowie had died after an 18-month battle with cancer. Listening to Blackstar after hearing such news perhaps casts a different light on the album and gives new meaning to the lyrics, “Something happened on the day he died. Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside”, and the final track I Can’t Give Everything Away seems as though it was almost foreshadowing. Blackstar, despite perhaps needing several listens to get a good grasp of it, definitely holds up, even more so as Bowie’s final album.  

About Gareth Thomas


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