When Bowie covered Ronnie Spector’s ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ on 2003’s Reality, he simultaneously traversed his own mythology and the Wall of Sound fabled by Ronnie’s late husband. His fixation with texturing often incredibly dense and provocative instrumentation continued over a ten year synapse to The Next Day, to be been lucidly resurrected again in Blackstar – phonetically (un)known as ★ – as the artist bows out.
His final studio release has curtsied to the unabashed experimentalism of Phil Spector’s sound, subverted into Bowie’s signature marque of make-believe. And, the prevailing statement is curtsies work best in space suits. The title track replays the long serving apologue of Major Tom; his seminal admonition that “the stars look very different today” visually concluding in the 1969 music video with the spaceman’s eternal ménage à trois with beautiful golden aliens. 47 years on, Major Tom’s space suit is deserted on the ground, laden with the astronaut’s jewelled skull.
‘Blackstar’ mediates Bowie’s universally creative holism – his predicating philosophies that life, the universe and everything co-operate within an extraordinary delicate human interconnection. While lead saxophonist on the record – Monterey’s Donny McCaslin – says it was written about ISIS, the song’s core lyric is surrounded by self-conscious eulogy, the eternality of music and a firm grounding in literature and the fall of man. Bowie’s philosophy orbits acquittal, where Major Tom’s stars are beautifully different today, Bowie’s stars are oppositional: gang stars, porn stars, film stars, pop stars, all stars gratifying themselves to hedonist ideology.
Bowie’s stars are oppositional… gratifying themselves to hedonist ideology
Bowie absorbs the title track in his Station to Station character the Thin White Duke, and the Satanic imagery that obsessed a significant part of Bowie’s 1970s. (Consequently, he quotes occult novelist Aleister Crowley on ‘★’, “in the centre of it all”). Symbolism of sin continues in allusions to John Ford’s great incest drama in ‘‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore’, initially b-siding the 2014 single release of ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’. Seemingly less experimental, McCaslin leads the re-recordings with fluctuating dissonant saxophone, providing the necessary unease for Bowie’s textually disrupted lyrics. While Ford never went in as abruptly and gender-defying as “man she punched me like a dude”, the inadvertent sexual agitation plays out in Maria Schneider’s antagonistic orchestration, especially for what follows as maybe ★’s most “song-like” song.
Bowie treats mortality with humour. Standout track comes near the halfway point. ‘Lazarus’ is a retelling of the Biblical resurrection story, as told by the Gospel of John. Where synths became a tenet of Bowie’s Berlin period, they return here with potency, crying back to an era fuelled by “red peppers, milk and cocaine”. The bare drum beat is not dissimilar to James Murphy’s percussive interludes on ‘’Tis A Pity’ and ‘Sue’, yet are met by a far greater orchestration and jazz influence. Bowie’s sombre defiance appears now to be a world away from his off-Broadway musical of the same name for which he initially penned the song, leading to questions of whether Bowie instead artistically, and beautifully, corralled his own death to music.
‘Girl Loves Me’ acts as the record’s closest cousin to the well-publicised Kendrick Lamar influence. In a conscious strain away from rock’n’roll, Bowie samples the fictional Nadsat dialect from Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, alongside Polari, the slang language from the 1970s London gay bars. It’s intimidatingly exclusive, the spawn of Young Thug and a Chestnut Café era Orwell, borrowing from the hip hop and jazz echelons of a society still with something to say; it’s no surprise that we are not told what that is. We then get taken to the equally baffling ‘Dollar Days’, dense with instrumentation, intensely layering echo chambers and remnants of krautrock.
★’s final song begins with a harmonica sample from 1977’s ‘A New Career in a New Town’, from the first of his collaborative releases with ambient minimalist Brian Eno. What seems to be a direct address to his terminal cancer, conceding that he’s “seeing more and feeling less”, is put again atop an amazingly visceral and coloured-in sound. The last song on his last album circles exactly back to where he started, amid the Vaudeville tradition of English musicals, which co-opted rock music as a theatricality; an environment where art and visual culture have as much relevance in rock music as the guitar, the 4/4 signature and a basic chord structure. In this sense, ★ acts as Bowie’s innovative nostalgia trip, revisiting the world which he has changed forever, and the world that will forever pride his immortality.