Hello and welcome to Basement Dwelling, a column written by me, Daniel R. Fiorio, where I review new records that should be on your musical radar. What sets Basement Dwelling apart from other music review columns is that these are all albums that are currently residing in my record collection. No promo copy was given, no stream was listened to, but a record was purchased (even if I didn’t like it). Don’t think of me as a critic but as a music obsessive looking to open a dialogue about some of the best tunes that are currently being released. Let’s head down to the basement and listen to…
Atmosphere, intensity, a skittering drum beat, distorted vocals, a sonic pallet that sounds all at once past, present, and future. These are all elements that greet you, the listener, on the opening of this record and title track, “Blackstar.” When you look at the source of its creation, these are all things that you would expect from living music icon David Bowie, although at the same time, maybe you wouldn’t. David Bowie is an artist who is known for covering new sonic territories and changing his musical shape with almost every release he puts out. He’s covered so many territories over the course of his lengthy career and he’s managed to cover a new one with Blackstar. Bowie has proven wrong the often-thought notion that just because you’re a veteran artist, your music will be dull or a shameless retread of the past. Blackstar completely spits in the face of that notion and offers a work that is just as bold and exciting as some of the records that have made David Bowie such an icon.
What sets Blackstar apart from other works in Bowie’s catalog is its deep sense of urgency throughout the entirety of the record.
We’re going to break away from the article that you were reading for a moment. I know, it throws off the structure of this review, but I don’t care. The above paragraph and following sentence was written on January 9th — the day after Blackstar was released. One day later, David Bowie was pronounced dead. I decided to keep what was written above to prove a point. That point being a double edged one: the first side being how life can be so cruel, yet beautiful, and present you with gifts such as a talented artist with a great piece of music. The other side being how rapidly your perspective on a piece of art can change. The thing is, as a music fan and critic, I never would have imagined this perspective could change so rapidly, and it makes me somewhat ill given the circumstances. Two days ago, Blackstar spoke to me as an artist getting a second wind, sounding revitalized and ready to bring on a new and intriguing part of their career that already had so much history to it. It was exciting and wonderful. Now, just two days later, I realize it’s an elegy written by the person who died himself. It’s haunting, depressing, and moving — I cannot emphasize the word moving enough.
In that last sentence of my old review, I said that Blackstar had a sound that was urgent, a statement that now feels kind of trite. Blackstar is the sound of life and death, a matter far more than “urgent.” Throughout the seven tracks presented here, you get meticulous and perfect instrumentation from saxophone player Donny McCaslin and his jazz band The Donny McCaslin Group. They create a sound that not only recalls Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and albums like Station To Station and Young Americans, but creates a sonic pallet that is altogether fresh at the same time. From the somber trudge of “Lazarus” to the space pop atmosphere of “Dollar Days,” there are so many captivating performances on this record. A lot of that has to do with Donny McCaslin and his band. In a recent interview with Uncut, McCaslin said that David recorded demos for all of these songs, most notably previous singles “Sue (Or In a Season Of Crime)” and “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” but he wanted McCaslin and his group to have total freedom and “let the songs fly” in the direction they saw fit. The songs presented here on Blackstar prove that this was a perfect decision.
The quality that stands out the most on Blackstar comes in the form of the album’s lyrics, which contain possibly some of David Bowie’s most engaging content ever. “She punched me like a dude” in “‘Tis a Pity” never ceases to put a smile on my face. And the frustration, regret, and acceptance with life that is demonstrated on this record is always compelling. This is really the most human The Starman has ever been lyrically. The entirety of what is said on the closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” a song that was already heartbreaking, is absolutely gut-wrenching in light of Bowie’s passing and what the song actually means.
David Bowie always did things on his terms. Sadly, added to that list is now his own death, and this record is proof of that. If we as a public at large were to know that “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is him acknowledging his liver cancer and the uncertainty of how long he has left on this Earth, it would throw Blackstar under a certain umbrella. If we as an audience had known that this would be his last work, and listened to it in that frame of mind, it would have been a flat-out slap in the face to an artist who deserves way more dignity and respect than that. Upon first listen, I loved Blackstar, but now that I get all of what this record means, I think it’s essential. I don’t simply love Blackstar even more now because I feel a need to give respect to someone who has passed and whom I deeply admired. I love Blackstar because it is a great album made under the highest stakes humanly possible, which I can’t put into words just how much I respect.
— Dan Fiorio, Music Blogger