In astronomy, a black star is defined as a transitional phase for a collapsing star, before it transforms into what is the equivalent of a black hole. In medical terms, a black star is a term used by radiologists to refer to certain types of cancer lesions. To David Bowie, according to the title track of Blackstar, a Blackstar is an icon who once shined bright has now lost their figurative light. These three interpretations of the word come into play within the 25th, and final, record from the now deceased cultural icon.
Bowie’s death is essential to understanding Blackstar, as all of the themes on this record deal with themes of the occult, morality, and his own personal confrontation with death. Tracks like “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days” depict Bowie coming to terms with his inevitable demise with incredible poise and wisdom. Lines like, “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” on “Lazarus” and “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside” on the title track were powerful on their own when these singles we’re released prior to the album’s release. However, with Bowie’s passing in our knowledge, each of the lines of this variety become some of the hardest hitting lyrics put to record in a while. The extent of Bowie’s dedication to Blackstar’s emotional potency peaks with one frighteningly surreal line within “Girl Loves Me”, “Where the (expletive) did Monday go?” The accuracy to the actual event of Bowie’s passing, which happened on Sunday, is too spot-on to be considered a coincidence. It’s proof that Bowie planned for his death to correlate with Blackstar (which was confirmed by frequent co-producer Tony Visconti). This sense of approaching mortality is enhanced by Bowie’s vocal performance. Similar to his recent output, Bowie’s aged voice has begun to wither, giving off a ghoulish quality. It wasn’t until this record where this vocal inflection really met its full potential, as his worn voice compliments the dark tone of the album perfectly. Even with the odder vocal inflections, such as on “Girl Loves Me,” where his voice frequently squawks and cracks, add to the record’s unsettling mood. On Blackstar, Bowie has recognized his impending doom and embraces it, lyrically and vocally.
The instrumentation that decorates Blackstar is yet another stylistic makeover by the musical chameleon. This last time around, Bowie delivers some of the most left-field, experimental material he’s ever released in the form of dark, brooding jazz rock, with bits of electronic music thrown in there. To help realize the album’s vision, saxophonist Donny McCaslin is brought onto the record and provides some of the most powerful sonic moments on the record. Whether it’s the blaring saxes coming through the left and right sound channels simultaneously on the back end of “Tis A Pity...” or the haunting melody that gives “Lazarus” even more emotional weight than thought possible, McCaslin’s contributions to Blackstar are not only welcome, but monumental to the record. While jazz elements do play a key role within the album, Blackstar is still a rock record at heart. This more familiar sound palette plays a major part in some of the best tracks musically on the album, especially on “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” with its incredibly tight guitar and bass riffs driving the track. Though it’s on the closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” where the music elevates the emotional potency of the track tenfold. Within the six minute timespan, the combination of sequenced drum machines, strings, heavenly synths, a sax solo, and guitar solo compliment Bowie’s most powerful vocal performance on the album, ending the record and evidently his career on one of his greatest tracks to date. Of course it would be David Bowie, a man who dedicated his entire life to the arts, that would say farewell to the world in the only way he knew how: music.