David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, may start where his tidy and accessible 2013 album, The Next Day, left off (a “solitary candle” stands in the villa of Ormen on the first track, the seeming aftermath of the midnight candle ceremony on “You Will Set the World on Fire”), but the continuity ends there, as Blackstar is a hard, bleak, and dense effort, with Bowie in the complex and contemplative mood that defined his more experimental work over the years. The spastic piano of “Aladdin Sane” and “Lady Grinning Soul,” the cloudy soundscapes of Low and Heroes, and the jerky plastic rock of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps certainly echo here, but Blackstar is defiantly a thing of its own, allowing Bowie to revisit his career-spanning, paradoxical fears—either that his life is ending imminently, or that it never will—with fascinating new sounds.
The album arrives in tandem with Bowie’s play Lazarus, which resumes the tale of The Man Who Fell to Earth’s Thomas Newton, an alien who comes to our world and makes the crucial mistake of falling in love. Of all the fictions in the Bowie canon, it’s Newton—secluded in a Manhattan loft, yearning to return to a place he swears he once was—who seems the most autobiographical, and it’s exactly Newton’s perpetual isolation and tortuous rumination that separates him from the extreme behaviors of Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke: These were characters who lived fantastically for the length of an album or so, while Newton is forever doomed to the sad and boring drone of human existence.
And yet, the story behind the creation of Blackstar—Bowie dropping in unannounced on saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s club show to recruit a backing band, referencing Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo in the studio—suggests the effort of an engaged, modern, even fraternal artist. Taking in the album is thus confusing beyond its beguiling song structures and lack of a unified style; it presents a rare disconnect between Bowie the creator of the album and Bowie’s creation on the album, like two doppelgangers convinced they’re each the real thing.
“Lazarus” features vague lyrics about a solitary man living in New York, dropping a cellphone, and breaking free from the unknown: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Dreamy horn charts rise and fall around a pulsating bassline, then the final line (“Ain’t that just like me?”) teases out speculation over who exactly “me” is, as frenetic saxophone and soft guitar color the outro. Similarly, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” a wistful ode offset by anxious percussion, includes lyrics that perhaps reference the heart attack that kept Bowie from touring since 2004, and the clever way he sings the chorus (“I can’t give everything…,” and then, after a long pause, “...away”) sounds almost like he’s confessing, until he quickly gets back to being coy. A repeating couplet on “Dollar Days,” written as “I’m trying to/I’m dying to,” is hard not to hear as “I’m trying to/I’m dying too.” These layers of identity on Blackstar are at times just shadowy enough to keep from being truly revelatory.
Blackstar’s less personal material is where things spin off the page musically. The ominous title track channels classic Bowie openers like “The Width of a Circle” and “Station to Station” (his favorite way to start things off is often apocalyptically) by challenging the listener with disparate, winding segments, a 10-minute runtime, and lyrics that are either playful nonsense or the key to everything. Bookended by Eastern-tinged march music, where Bowie builds hypnotic bridges of his multi-tracked voice, the song has a warped sing-along at its center with an army of mutant Bowies singing backup and gorgeous washes of keyboard.
“Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” is a bluesy chug overlaid with sedated vocals and saxophone, the whole thing almost out of synch, and “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” has dazzling interludes of ascending saxophone and racing barroom piano. “Girl Loves Me” is the most predictable song on the album (a funky four-note riff loops for most of the track), so, of course, Bowie chooses to sing partly in Nadsat, Anthony Burgess’s invented language from A Clockwork Orange, and partly in antiquated British gay slang. It’s refreshing that the album finds him so cerebral and cagey.
Jazz has been used as a catchall term to describe the difficult arrangements on Blackstar, though it’s more that the loose and dexterous spirit of jazz has been imported into prog, art rock, and electronica to aggravate the approachability of those genres. Some of this far reach undermines the album’s cohesion; it’s more a collection of similar songs (“Whore” and “Sue,” as well as the two closing ballads) and standalone suites like “Lazarus” and “Blackstar.” The way the lyrics alternate between ambiguous introspection and dark whimsy can also confuse the sense of the album as a whole, but hunting for patterns or for humanity on Blackstar is less the point than enjoying the majesty of David Bowie, even on the verge of his death, sounding this incredibly alive.