So…two days later and I have listened to each of the new Bowie songs a couple of times, but I still haven’t sat down and listened to the whole album all the way through. I’m going to do that right now.
1. “Blackstar”: This is a monumental piece of work. Ominous and grandiose, but also kind of sly and funny. Although I’m led to believe that’s a human drumming, the percussion makes obvious reference to the drum’n’bass stylings of Earthling (not to mention “Sunday”).
So what’s this song about? Well, I gave up trying to pin meanings on Bowie songs a long time ago. His lyrics are semi-random and impressionistic; they mean whatever you think they mean at that moment. But on some level “Blackstar,” like all of his songs, is about David Bowie. (Everything we create is in some way about ourselves; it’s human nature. Bowie is just a little more upfront about it than most people.) The title could be a reference to the fact that, while Bowie remains a huge star, the message he’s peddling is not one most people want to hear. Both The Next Day and this album are uniformly bleak in their outlook. So was “Five Years,” for that matter, but it was accompanied by some more upbeat songs to serve as counterweight; Senior Bowie is not interested in comforting you. He’s not interested in what you want, period.
2. “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”: Starts with David, um, snorting? Is he back on the white powder? I doubt it, but this is a pretty relentless number. It’s a little more refined than the demo-quality version he previously released, but this is Bowie using his new toy, the jazz band, to do something difficult – maybe just for the sake of being difficult, I’m not sure. This isn’t music I would necessarily listen to for pleasure, but it does have a certain oomph.
3. “Lazarus”: Starts off sounding very much like The Cure; I half-expect Robert Smith’s voice to come in. It’s a gorgeous track, with those haunting sax notes, but the stabbing bursts of distorted guitar that punctuate Bowie’s vocal keep it from being just “pretty.” It sounds like a suicide song; one thinks of Bowie’s alter-ego Thomas Newton sitting in darkened apartment with a gun in his mouth. That last chord has a strong sense of finality to it…
4. “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”: …but the album carries on. I didn’t have much use for the original version of “Sue,” which I found to be an impenetrable, unlistenable slab of skronk. This rerecording starts off sounding like heavy metal, and stays pretty noisy throughout; jazzy shredding, I’d call it. I still don’t love it but I can at least get through it.
5. “Girl Loves Me”: Most of the lyrics to this song are in Droog slang, which makes one think back to the olden days. Ziggy-era Bowie used to take the stage to Walter Carlos’ electronic version of Beethoven’s Ninth, copped from A Clockwork Orange. The lyrics that are in English are pretty mundane (“where the fuck did Monday go?”); on the whole this track is a real head-scratcher, a wildcard even among this collection of oddballs.
6. “Dollar Days”: Those opening notes I’ve heard somewhere before, in another Bowie song, but can’t think of it right off. Unlike “Lazarus,” this one starts pretty and stays pretty. You can’t miss the lyrics “I’m dying to / Push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again.” Is this Senior Bowie’s statement of purpose? That he wants to confuse you, throw you off balance, make you think? Have his legacy be an unresolved question that in some way makes him immortal?”
7. “I Can’t Give Everything Away”: You don’t listen to a new Bowie album in 2016 without thinking about the possibility of it being his last. I hope “I Can’t Give Everything Away” doesn’t turn out to be his swan song, because to my ear it’s a pretty slight confection. There are little traces of many previous Bowies here: a touch of …hours, some Low-era harmonica, and there’s that Earthling percussion again. But it doesn’t add up to much. The sax part is jazzy, but not in a good way; a bit wanky, truth be told. I’m ready for this song to be over a minute before it is – I’d rather listen to “Blackstar” again instead.
And there we have it, mission accomplished. Verdict, somewhat disappointed; this is not going to be one of my favorite Bowie albums. But it does have some great moments, so, on the whole, I’ll take it. Hopefully David will be inspired to keep stretching and trying new things for as long as his visit here on Earth lasts.