In sitting down to pen this review, neither of the two obvious starting points seemed to suffice as a substantial introduction. Stating the obvious would’ve stretched far past redundancy; every attentive person is well aware by now that ★ is the final sonic statement from incomparable music legend David Bowie. Yet, the understandable grief that coincided with this announcement doesn’t seem appealing either. To overwhelm oneself exclusively with the reality of Bowie’s death hinders commemoration of the life and career that caused public mourning to be so profound. This truth illuminated the way in which to begin honoring Bowie’s achievements both directly and vicariously through ★; by viewing Bowie as he was just days prior to his death:
When envisioning a 69 year old man near the conclusion of an 18 month battle with cancer, this certainly isn’t the image drawn to the forefront of most people’s thoughts. Then again, Bowie never presented himself in an anticipated fashion, both with his music and attire. There Bowie stood, gleaming before Jimmy King’s lens, likely brimming with more zeal for life than most of the healthy people scurrying along nearby. He may not have been aware that this birthday photo shoot occurred on the antepenultimate day of his life, but even if he had, it’s doubtful that the news would have tampered with his demeanor whatsoever. What Bowie presents on ★ is an honest, courageous open letter to death. There’s no saccharine sentiment or utter hopelessness; just emotional nakedness that delves into the myriad of genuine emotions that compose life with cancer. The Next Day was an homage to Bowie’s past (artwork and all), and now appears to have also been the final chapter in Bowie’s extensive discography. ★, on the other hand, is a stand-alone piece, stepping outside Bowie’s life as a musician and commenting exclusively and singularly on his career’s conclusion. In doing so, Bowie crafted one of his finest albums and a testimony to his status as one of the most significant things to have happened to music as an art form.
Bowie’s vocals are crucial to conveying the mood of ★. His instantly recognizable voice provides the core of his delivery, but there are underlying tones of weariness, mysticism and contentment. It’s obvious that Bowie experienced a fair deal of physical exhaustion over the past 18 months, but this doesn’t inhibit the album; to the contrary, it bolsters Bowie’s fearless confrontation of his own mortality. Everything his larynx would allow for appears on ★ as emotive and poignant as any of his other vocal performances. Cancer also widened the emotional landscape within Bowie, and his longtime fascination with spiritual and mystic themes comes through with a heightened urgency, as is expected with a pre-death search for meaning. Many of his odder cadences bear similarities to Scott Walker‘s recent output, demonstrated most vividly on the title track. As Bowie launches head-on into his own eulogy and moans of a solitary candle betwixt the city limits of Ormen (Norweigan for “snake”), one can see the reflections of cloaked figures swaying in his eyes.
Yet, as morbid as Bowie is on “★,” his tone shifts slightly as the music clears from a murky funeral sermon to an upbeat swagger. He belts:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
Who “he” is has been made clear by Bowie’s death, as has the meaning behind the song’s namesake. A world without Bowie seemed inconceivable; he’s spent five decades as a staple figure, continually altering the music landscape. But once the world faced the inevitable, the prospect became less frightening. The star of Bowie is black because his death withdrew the light, but even as a dark star, it still burns and continues its orbit. As his family said in an issued statement, “we welcome everyone’s celebration of his life as they see fit,” something Bowie encouraged in the above lyrics. This is why Bowie’s tone ultimately rests in contentment: he was well-aware of the incredible impact and quality of his career and the fact that waves upon waves of music fans of all ages and preferences would either continue adoring his contributions to music or discover them for the first time.
And as “I Can’t Give Everything” confesses, Bowie “seeing more and feeling less” caused him to push himself one last time to make ★’s compositions as fleshed out and moving as possible. There’s a reason the title-track roused intrigue upon its release, as Bowie’s celestial wails echo over subtle electronics and impeccably arranged brass instrumentation, particularly a piercing and honking sax. A synth and guitar atmosphere that sounds like concentrated stardust leads into the track’s second half, a waltzing ode to classic Bowie attitude accented with sleazy horns. Everything finally culminates into a swell of instrumentation and a chorus chanting “I’m a blackstar” before easing with Bowie as he wails and wanes into silence.
“★” is followed by a quartet of excellent tracks, all showcasing Bowie’s dynamic approach. Rife with snark and riding a driving beat, Bowie lightens the mood with “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” verbosely proclaiming that:
Black struck the kiss, she kept my cock
Smote the mistress, drifting on
‘Tis a pity she was a whore
She stole my purse, with rattling speed
That was patrol
This is the war
‘Tis a pity she was a whore
After the track concludes with Bowie hollering nonsense and the horn section bleating, “Lazarus” slams the listener with a contrasting mood, complete with a dismal post punk bass line, a somber horn refrain and crashing guitar riffs. A reflective Bowie sings as if he’s already died, fitting the theme of revival as if he’s come back for one last smoke and yarn spinning. And as he croons that “I’ll be free, just like that bluebird,” that pained desire to be rid of suffering seeps through his quivering lips.
Once the Sixties heist tones of “Sue (Or a Season in Crime)” plays out and Bowie’s ghoulishly frigid vocals pierce through “Girl Loves Me,” ★’s conclusion truly begins. As sax, piano, guitar and synths align and intertwine, Bowie reminisces about everything (“Dollar Days”) and then lets go entirely (“I Can’t Give Everything Away”). Even taken out of context, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” has such an innate air of departure that its impact is made that much greater once context is restored. And when Bowie repeats the title again and again amid a warm, comforting, synthetic atmosphere, he could be professing one of several things.He could be mourning the fact that no matter when he died, he would’ve never been able to say and compose everything he had to share. Relatedely, he could be admitting to his fans that the music he put forth is ultimately up to them to interpret and derive meaning from. Finally, it’s also possible that he’s speaking directly to death itself; as much as cancer tried to take from him, Bowie refused to forfeit his dedication for music and insisted on making ★ before he departed.
Then again, longtime Bowie producer and personal friend Tony Visconti revealed that ★ may not have been his last album if the circumstances had been different. Bowie was planning another album of at least five songs that he intended to be his final recording, yet another testament to his passion for his craft. But quite frankly, there doesn’t need to be another Bowie album; ★ is a literal once in a lifetime statement that remarkably few artists will have the ability to make and fewer still could craft as successfully as Bowie has with his ultimate adieu. It’s understandable to feel sorrow at the loss of an icon that shaped countless lives, both on a musical and persona level. But one cannot forgot to revel in the impact of David Robert Jones; a man so fearless, insightful and gifted that it’s difficult not to feel blessed to have experienced ★ in the moment with him. Sure, music won’t be the same without Bowie…but it was also never the same whenever he exited the studio with another masterpiece, and it should be effortless to see which of these truths is more worthy of our focus in commemorating the life and work of a true cultural visionary.
David Bowie’s ★ gets…