A Very Bowie Christmas: Dec 25th

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And today is Christmas day. Merry Christmas. Since the first of the month, I have reviewed every David Bowie album, listened to every studio album from start to finish, and selected favourite songs (or least worst) from each album. And now its Christmas day, I will give you a full track by track of Blackstar.

Blackstar is Bowie’s last full album after a 3 year period of activity. Starting with The Next Day, Bowie had released: A new compilation album, updating the excellent Best of Bowie compilation with more recent releases and some older treats too, in 2015, the 5 Years Boxset was released, covering Bowie’s album releases between 1969-1973 (implying that David Bowie ’67 has been disowned), and a musical sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, Lazarus.

Sadly, we lost David Bowie in 2016, at the age of 67, to cancer. 2016 really was the year of the reaper. This gave Blackstar; his last released album, a new layer of meaning and greater pathos. This is why I have decided to make this a full album track by track, rather than selecting one song.

TRACK ONE: BLACKSTAR

I originally did a standalone Blackstar review in 2015, which I will link here, which gave my initial thoughts on the song and of the music video that accompanied it. Frankly, this is a very striking and powerful opening to this album. I remember when it first was premiered on Sky Atlantic back in December of 2015, in anticipation of the premiere of the show ‘The Last Panthers’, for which this song was used for the opening. The video premiered and it baffled the hell out of people. I watched it initially on YouTube, and it took me a while to get into this piece. The first third of it I was initially turned off by, but the second third was better, in my opinion.

The song does a lot to create an aura of mystery, and it is really creepy. To quote my initial review: It’s like Low on some form Psychedelic drug. But it really isn’t a radio-friendly track. And I think that works in its favour. I think I wouldn’t have been as impressed with a simple follow up to The Next Day. Blackstar is completely outside of the realm of contemporary music. It’s a very experimental piece, with a lot to it.

I would say that it is more like Station to Station on some form of psychedelic drug nowadays but you understand my point. Rather than just rewrite my initial review, I have linked my full thoughts on Blackstar, but it was a great opener to the album, and it still is now.

TRACK TWO: ‘TIS A PITY SHE WAS A WHORE

This song was originally recorded as a B Side to ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ for the Nothing has Changed Compilation, both of which were re-recorded for this album. ‘Tis a Pity’ was shortened a little for this, and I think that works in its favour. What makes it poignant to listen to is at the start, you hear heavy breathing and an almost machine-like sound, which you can interpret in any way. It makes me feel uneasy, and it really does retrospectively showcase David Bowie’s mortality. Musically, this song is a great example of Jazztronica and the drum work; frantic as it is, really does bring home that sense of urgency that this song portrays, and this album portrays.

Lyrically, there are other references to this sense of urgency. ‘That was patrol, this is the war’ to me reads like Bowie is commenting on his health situation, for he was suffering from Liver cancer at this time. And the line ‘Tis my fate, I suppose’ also brings home that acceptance of his ultimate fate, which I think this album is themed around.

TRACK THREE: LAZARUS

This is a hard song to listen to. When I initially bought this album, I lost my Grandad, and this year, my Grandad died as I was working on this series of posts, and I was really dreading reviewing this album for a lot of reasons. Namely, this song. Lazarus is just a realistic portrayal of death to me, and it is so hard for me to listen to. But this song isn’t about them, this is David Bowie’s epitaph, and it is a damn fine one. It really does portray the thoughts of Bowie and his demise. The man has ‘Nothing Left to lose’

The music video for this song is what I think about most when I think about this song. As Bowie Songs puts it, and I think they put it best, He plays two roles (beggarman and the resurrected), both seen in Renck’s earlier “Blackstar” video, and the symbolism is clear, isn’t it? “Jones”: the dying mortal, reaching out to heaven, his wasted body being tugged away from his hospital bed. “Bowie”: the impish trickster daemon, still at work, still plotting, wearing his Station to Station jumpsuit, scoffing at how dully serious death is. When we see David Bowie going into the wardrobe at the end of the video, it is because Dave Jones, the man who had been performing the Bowie character, had passed.

Musically, this is raw emotion. You can hear the heart and soul of the singer performing alongside the mournful jazz sensibilities. It really is special, and it hurts to listen to.

TRACK FOUR: SUE (OR IN A SEASON OF CRIME)

Again, this is one of the songs that were re-recorded for this album and was the most changed song from the compilation to the album. I actually prefer the original single version, but this is a shorter and leaner track and is not without merit. This version is a lot faster and a lot tighter, which gives it a more energetic sound, which adds to the sinister nature of the lyrics. Musically, the original recording of the song was more akin to the sound that Blackstar had, but this re-recording sounds more like something one would hear on Outside, especially with the more industrial sound. It still sounds like it was made for Blackstar, but the music does seem to convey elements of Bowie’s mid-nineties output, which I welcome.

Lyrically, however, this song reminds me a little bit of ‘Please Mr. Gravedigger’ from the very first Bowie album, at least thematically. It is a dark, dirty song, about murder and covering up said murder of the protagonist’s wife. I really enjoy it. Mind you, I do prefer the seven-minute version as well.

TRACK FIVE: GIRL LOVES ME

This is a really creepy song to listen. The use of Nadsat and Polari; slang from the Anthony Burgess book ‘A Clockwork Orange’, and the slow and sinister instrumentation, which has a lot of bass for good measure, just make this song positively menacing. This song also references the book 1984; which Bowie tried to adapt into a musical in the 70’s, subsequently taking up half of Diamond Dogs. The Chesnut Tree Bowie sits in is a reference to the one Winston Smith goes to when he is reprogrammed and realises he doesn’t love his love interest in this book.

Again, the electronica influences are strong in this piece, with the jazz that dominates much of the album taking somewhat of a backseat for this piece. I feel like this song was strongly influenced by rap as well, with its lyrical composition and the use of swearing. I also take the interpretation that this song, trippy as it is, really does create a sense that the protagonist is not lucid when singing this song, either high on a painkiller or something else. It is unsettlingly interesting listening.

TRACK SIX: DOLLAR DAYS

A decidedly mellower track, it starts off with someone sorting through papers, much like the start of the second track of the album. This is a very reflective song like Bowie is directly singing to us, the listener, about what he will miss after his death, such as being in England. The lyrics in this song are particularly striking to listen to.

“Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to”

The largely fast to mid-tempo album slows down for this song, and the instruments play in unison, the saxophone blaring in this lusciously scored piece of music. It is a goodbye from Bowie to his fans, and it is a beautiful piece to listen to.

TRACK SEVEN: I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY

This is the last song of the album, and therefore, the end of an era. This is probably the best song on the album, and one of the most beautiful endings to an album ever, up there with The Show Must Go on by Queen, or The Planet of Passed Souls by Hannah Peel. This is a special song as it is the only one which is played in a major chord, while the rest of the album has been in a minor chord. It plays to me like a celebration, as well as Bowie responding to the questions which fans may have been asking with this album. The saxophone really makes this, the musician really giving their all for this song. I wonder if they knew what this song was about as they played.

The electronic sounds at the very start of this piece, which segue from the previous track, finds itself morphing slowly into more natural sounds from traditional instruments, that make this a fantastic bookend for this particular album. And if that doesn’t top it, the harmonica that is played throughout this song? It is playing the harmonica solo of ‘A New Career in a New Town’ from the album Low, indicating that Bowie has left the world, and in turn, us behind.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

This is an album of life, mortality, death, and finally, celebration. This is the last dance, so to speak, for David Bowie, and in turn, this month-long retrospective. There is so much I can say about this album and its themes, music, lyrics. I consider Blackstar to be the best way to describe David Bowie to anyone. It is experimental, it is strange, it is ahead of its time, and it is human. This album is the embodiment of humanity, and being a human, in all its finite nature. Doing this series of posts has allowed me to appreciate the work that this man did throughout his life.

Some would argue that David Bowie is overrated, and perhaps they’re right. I wouldn’t call him the best in the world, but I would say that he was one of the most human musicians in musical history, and many of his albums reflect that humanity and the changing nature of people throughout time. I really enjoyed doing this series, and I do hope that this series has made you think about some of your favourite songs. Perhaps it has opened you up to songs you’ve never listened to before, and maybe its made you a bit sick of David Bowie. All I will say now is thank you, and have A Very Bowie Christmas.

About the author

Ben

Since 2012, Benjamin Attwood has written for the If you Ask Ben blog.

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