RATINGS: A = must own B = buy it C= average D = yawn F = puke

David Bowie — Blackstar

Rating: A-

To call David Bowie a chameleon would be an understatement. It would also be wrong.

Sure, the man born David Robert Jones shed aesthetic skin like most of us change clothes. But it was never an affectation. Each persona was just that: a wholly formed entity spanning the Thin White Dukes, Ziggy Stardusts and Major Toms that reflected Bowie’s always-restless spirit.

Blackstar both reconciles that spirit and keeps the flame alive. 

The title track is an epic in itself, an unsettling-yet-alluring pairing of drum-and-bass and ghostly vocals. If filmmaker David Lynch wrote music, perhaps it would sound like this (the video sure packs the Twin Peaks director’s twisted punch).

Meanwhile, “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” walks a quicker beat, slapping soulful background vocals and ever-present saxophone against arguably the worst snare sound since Metallica’s St. Anger, but in the best of ways in this instance. The song is quite catchy, its loping rhythm sometimes overshadowed by some great lyrics (gotta love the opening line: “She punched me like a dude.”)

Elsewhere, “Lazarus” comes on slower, with Bowie seemingly greeting us from beyond (“Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”). Languid sax lines and sparse instrumentation make this arguably Blackstar’s most haunting tune. It’s also considered the album’s “single,” whatever that means in today’s download landscape.

“Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)” is frantic, both in percussion and melody. As with most other tracks, guitars are sparse, if featured at all, in favor of sax and the drum-and-bass approach that made Earthling such a treat.

In fact, Blackstar marries Earthling’s percussive spirit with Outside’s experimental nature. Rock and roll, this is not; Blackstar is jazz in outer space. It’s the opposite approach Bowie took in surprising the world with 2013’s The Next Day, which turned heads since no one knew Bowie was recording new material. 

While The Next Day was rather straightforward, at least by Bowie standards, Blackstar is more disturbing, but not off-putting. 

The soulful “I Can’t Give Everything Away” just may be Blackstar’s best song. Coming on like a James Bond theme with its harmonica and lulling warmth, it quickly becomes something more personal. Bowie seems to be saying his creativity knows no depth, and no matter how he tries, the man who inspired countless musicians, filmmakers and misfits offered more than he could possibly share in a lifetime.

That lifetime ended on Jan. 10, only two days after both his birthday and Blackstar’s release. A man of 69 years continued to work more than most artists half his age. While battling cancer to an unknowing public, Bowie collaborated on Lazarus, an off-Broadway sequel to his role in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Whether exploring rock, pop, electronic, jazz or avant garde musical stylings, the man who was equally comfortable in cinema and fashion circles worked until the last moment. And we are all the richer for it.

’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore
Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)
Girl Loves Me
Dollar Days
I Can’t Give Everything Away

By A. Lee Graham