January 10, 2016 was a hard day for music lovers everywhere, as it marked the death of the musical legend, David Bowie. For those who lived through the 70’s and 80’s, the automatic response to the news was grief. Many knew and recognized the unique figure Bowie became. His alter ego Ziggy Stardust, the promiscuous humanoid alien rock star, brought a new flamboyancy to rock and roll. His classic hits include the 1977 "Heroes" and the 1969 "Space Oddity" (Both songs are worth checking out for those unfamiliar with them). His next album, Blackstar, really takes the "Heroes" route in terms of tone and musical influence.
For millennial’s, the news of Bowie death went more to the tune of “David Bowie? Let me Google him… Oh yeah that guy. He’s dead? That sucks.” Some knew who he was, most knew his name, but few really identified with his legacy. I personally identify with this. I knew the name “David Bowie” and I recognized the pictures my old soul friends were plastering over the Internet. In hindsight, I realize that I vaguely remembered him being a mentor on American Idol 2 or 3 seasons ago. Upon thoroughly devouring his Wikipedia page, I learned more about the man and Icon that he was. Being the hipster that I am, I mourned the loss of an opportunity to love something weird before everyone else did, but now that Bowie is dead I can’t be a fan without knowing that I jumped on a bandwagon.
However, for those of you who want to understand the cultural phenomenon that is David Bowie, it really isn’t to late. The tragic irony that came with the rock star’s death was that he passed away only two days after the release of his final album: Blackstar.
Blackstar is particularly appealing to millenials because it doesn’t live in the past. The dark brooding vibe behind the album fits with the indie rock of today. Bowie’s vocals are filtered through an effect that is similar to the vocal sound produced by Cage the Elephant and The Neighbourhood. I think it especially takes on a similar sound as The Neighborhood, with dark ethereal tones in the intensely layered collection of music.
The opening title song of David Bowie’s final album is a full 9 minutes and 58 seconds. The lyrics to this songs are some of the most puzzling of any of his songs as he sets the scene in a villa at an execution. His vocals are haunting, taking on a ghostly intonation reminiscent of a Charles Dickens novel, not the mention the reverb that only enhances its supernatural quality.
About four minutes in the song decomposes to almost silence as it fades into a much lighter guitar picking. His vocals shine in the uncluttered arrangement, with the almost overlapping background vocals with heavy, science fiction like effects over it. It stays clear for a while until it falls back into the haunting hymn like verses.
Lazarus is the most prophetic song on the album, foreshadowing Bowie’s death looming on the horizon at the time of its release. “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now”.
The simple intro, with the saxophone is mournful, but easy on the mind. I am reminded of elevator music, but its elevator music I would enjoy on a quiet depressing evening. The downbeat of the first half of the song leads nicely into the bridge of the song, which feels more like the Bowie version of a bass drop. About 2 minutes in the song finally takes an uplifting twist as the bridge hits. Bowie’s vocals are heart wrenching and deeply rooted in emotion. Just as Bowie’s vocals finally broke the downbeat of the beginning, the saxophone takes a trip of its own, finishing off the song nicely. Lazarus may not be my favorite, but it definitely captures Bowie’s legacy in emotion if not music.
3. Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)
Sue starts out with a driving guitar rhythm that carries the track through the next 4 minutes. This song is probably my favorite on the albumen, because of the guitar rift that keeps the other wise floating sounds grounded in reality. The rest of the track had what can only be described as science fiction medley. Each instrument, or sound, seems to be playing independent of the others. It’s almost as if several songs were written and then overlaid to create a slightly overcrowded mash-up that barely works. Sue most clearly manifest the jazz influence on Bowies last album, marred with temp changes and little improvisational trails of melody tied together only by the iconic voice of David Bowie.
It is by some shocking coincidence that a significant amount of Bowie’s lyrics are about death. Specifically Lazarus portrays the speaker in the song as a man talking from heaven, speaking of the freedom he has obtained. In a way, that what Blackstar is, David Bowie’s last strange, unearthly message to us all, sent to us in the voice of a dead man speaking beyond his grave.