By Jason Herring, January 12 2016 —
When David Bowie returned to the music industry in 2013 with The Next Day, he fared better than most aging rock stars who come back for a victory lap. Though it lacked groundbreaking songwriting, the record felt like a vintage Bowie release and was a welcome addition to his decade-spanning discography.
But Bowie’s latest and final album, ★ (pronounced ‘Blackstar’), embodies everything that made Bowie one of our lifetime’s most iconic artists. The record — released on Bowie’s 69th birthday — is an experimental odyssey.
A 10-minute science fiction epic featuring repetitive and monotone chanting overtop an out-of-time drum beat kicks off the album. “I’m not a gangster, I’m not a film star, I’m a blackstar,” Bowie intones as the song reaches its peak, lyrics working with a scattered jazz backdrop to create a deeply unnerving atmosphere.
Bowie’s singing is unsurprisingly rough around the edges. But he uses this to his advantage on tracks like “Lazarus,” where his impassioned vocals contribute to the song’s tortured, creepy mood.
The album’s highlight comes in “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” a blistering cut propelled by breakneck jazz drums. The track’s intensity is reminiscent of the avant-garde genius of artists like Scott Walker, a style Bowie pulls off flawlessly.
Even ★’s less gratifying tracks offer daring, complex compositions. “Girl Loves Me” is a well-produced track closer to the heavy industrial music of Swans than anything Bowie released in the past.
And “Dollar Days,” a sprawling track that jumps between a piano ballad and drum machine-driven EDM, ends the album by offering a reprieve from its dark overtones.
★ is undoubtedly Bowie’s best work in decades, on par with seminal albums like “Heroes” and Ziggy Stardust. His last album is just as revolutionary as those he released over 35 years ago.
Few artists have shaped music and pop culture the way Bowie did. His albums have been a constant soundtrack to my life and the lives of many others, and he will be greatly missed.