Listening to Blackstar on this January Day

David Bowie—the artist who transcended style and media and form and perhaps his own self—died yesterday, 2 days after his 69th birthday and the release of what is now his final album, Blackstar.

The tributes and remembrances that I’ve seen today have been moving and wide-ranging, reflecting Bowie’s unique influence on listeners of all kinds. Composer/violinist/Arcade Fire member Owen Pallett has a touching story about having dinner with Bowie back in 2005. Author Elizabeth Gilbert is overwhelmed by Bowie’s making art in the face of death. And actor Simon Pegg put it beautifully and succinctly:

“If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

Like Gilbert, I am deeply moved by Bowie’s ability not just to create while confronting his mortality head on, but to continue to stretch himself in new directions. I’ve not only admired Bowie’s ability to reinvent himself (rock’s version of a Stravinsky or Miles Davis), but also his collaborative approach—how he embraces the knowledge and insight of others to expand his art’s expressive range.

Blackstar (and his previous single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” released in October 2014), find Bowie once again challenging himself to expand his art through collaboration, this time with New York jazz musicians (many of whom I’ve written about here and at Jazz Speaks). Sitting at home on this cold and sunny afternoon, all I can think of to do is delve into this valedictory work and bid farewell to this inimitable human being.

Track 1: Blackstar

This is a sprawling odyssey, but the direction of motion is uncertain. Mark Guiliana’s drumming is energetic and intense, but also brutally syncopated, as if gracefully tap dancing in lead shoes. The other band members seem to be moving at different speeds and in different directions. Guitarist Ben Monder’s fingerpicking is relaxed, peacefully drifting through keyboardist Jason Lindner’s vintage synth patches, while saxophonist Donny McCaslin swoops in and out with melodic fragments that move at yet a different rate. The atmosphere is simultaneously tranquil and deeply unsettling.

Bowie’s vocals are striking and declamatory, almost a sacred chorale. He harmonizes himself, an ethereal falsetto floating an octave and a fifth above his main note. That interval is part of the harmonic series, meaning that the two pitches, though far apart, are proportionally related and fuse in the mind. It’s as if I’m hearing both Bowie’s earthly and heavenly voices simultaneously. Both Bowie’s voice and McCaslin’s saxophone are mixed in a way to make it seem that the performers are moving in space in relation to me as the listener. Sometimes, they seem far away, other times close up. Sometimes they move from my right to my left side. It’s disorienting and positively spine-tingling.

At about four minutes in, the rhythms break down, the song reaching a place of restless repose. A new major-key chord progression enters, surrounded by the opening section’s fizzy haze. Bowie intones:

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)

Poignancy aside, I’m really curious about the meaning of the word “blackstar,” particularly in how he contrasts it with not being a “gangstar,” “film star,” “pop star,” “marvel star,” “white star,””porn star,” or “wandering star.” Maybe it’s just the fact that the lyrics move to the second person, with Bowie addressing some unknown you, but I get a sort of Walt Whitman-esque feeling here. Perhaps “blackstar” is a way of saying that “I contain multitudes,” that this bridge is a sort of bizarro Song of Myself. After hearing the obtuse lyrics of the opening section that can disorient or alienate, Bowie is inviting the listener to ponder them, explore the blackness and the mystery. The things that the listener may not understand in a Bowie song are just as much an authentic part of him as the things that the listener can understand. This simultaneous disorientation and embrace is something that I experience in a lot of great music. I think jazz pianist Brad Mehldau puts it pretty well when he describes the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It’s like they’re saying:

“Fuck you. I love you. Now I’m going to make some beautiful music for you.”

Track 2: ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

The sounds of Bowie breathing at the top are really striking, firmly creating a sense of bodily form after the enigmatic, shadowy Bowie I heard in the opener. Once again, the members of the band are moving in different directions and at different rates. Guiliana’s drumming is more straightforward and propulsive, but Lindner and a choir of McCaslins play pulses that speed up and slow down. It’s like Guiliana’s sitting on a train moving at a constant velocity next to a busy highway, where Lindner’s and McCaslins’s cars are constantly accelerating and breaking. It’s very much in the spirit of Charles Ives.

Bowie’s singing is really behind the beat here. It’s as if he’s struggling to get through each word, conjuring up as much strength as he can from his decaying body. The lyrics connote a such a struggle. It feels that the aforementioned whore is disease, taking all of what the singer has. The major-key, sentimental chord progression ratchets up the irony here. The song becomes blackly comic.

What’s striking me at this point is why Bowie would want to work with improvisers on this record and let them really utilize their improvisational practice when constructing the songs. It feels to me like it’s a means of being in the moment, of making something living, in real time, rather than etching something in a more permanent manner. It’s as if Bowie wanted his final work to be a deep experience of the now, an embrace of beautiful transience.

Track 3: Lazarus

This track is the most explicit dealing with mortality yet, with clear and evocative lyrics. But what gets me is how Bowie’s voice—which was altered with lots of digital effects in the first two songs—is almost unadorned now, with just a touch of reverb. I can really hear the grit and strain in his voice. He is intensely vulnerable, sharing deep fears.

Ben Monder’s distorted guitar freezes me in my tracks. It’s not just distorted, but has a particular, unique flavor of distortion. It’s filled with lots of white noise, yes, but is surprisingly quiet and thin in some ways. It’s a scream and a whisper all at once—a chilling stab in the dark. The song has a kind of negative beauty. The harmony is traditionally beautiful and lush, a rooted minor chord alternating with a lower lydian chord. Yet, all the noisiness of the guitar and synthesizer transform this object of beauty into something grotesque.

Moving onto the second verse, I’m curious at how locked in the guitar riff is—it lands in the same place in every phrase, pushing against the musical spontaneity found throughout the first two songs. That regularity feels like a rhythmic fate motive, like the recurring rhythm in Mahler’s 6th Symphony (deadly fate always knocking at the door). The final verse’s lyrics are hopeful, but there’s still pain in Bowie’s voice. It’s as if he’s saying these lyrics to himself, helping to push himself forward through despair, but still unsure of himself. McCaslin’s solo over the outro is colored with reverb and delay effects, placing his sound in a church-like space and helping elevate the song’s confessional quality.

Track 4: Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)

I wrote extensively about the original version of this track with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, here. I’m really liking this version, too. It feels a little more unsettled and agitated here. Jason Lindner’s synth textures are brighter and noisier than Schneider’s rich big-band voicings. Everything feels a bit more prickly and lithe, particularly Mark Guiliana’s drumming. He’s been giving it his all the whole album and just sounds fantastic.

Something I’m noticing this time around is the central presence of a tri-tone in the main riff (it’s the dissonant interval that’s found all over West Side Story). It’s a very unstable sonority that always wants to move to a more stable one, so that’s contributing to the overall agitation.

What’s also striking is how Bowie’s voice is subjected to various digital effects throughout the track. At first, his voice is clear and in the center of the mix, but at different points, his voice is moved and chopped up and fuzzed out. Utilizing effects on the human voice on a recording is always so striking because it feels like something is happening to the person on the other side of the speakers. It’s a way of creating invisible theater, if you will.

And goodness me Ben Monder is really slaying it with all these hair-raising colors.

Track 5: Girl Loves Me

The lyrics are seemingly obtuse here (they’re apparently a combination of Nadsat, the made-up language from A Clockwork Orange, and Polari, a slang language found in 1970s London gay clubs), but I feel the music really communicates what’s all going on here.

It starts off with a reggae-ska lilt, though Guiliana’s drumming is strikingly straight-feeling. From the get-go, the song is surreal, distorting a recognizable sonic image like the way Dali distorts a watch. Many of Bowie’s lyrics are put through a delay effect, as they repeat and fade out. This technique is a real trope of dub reggae, further clarifying the song’s genre image. The chorus is super sing-songy, but in this creepy, straitjacketed way.

On verse two, this new, capital-r Romantic chord progression comes in, further distorting the genre of the song. Bowie is moving out of the psychic space of a dance club and into his own mind. “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Bowie intones, no longer enjoying the earthly pleasures around him as he contemplates mortality.

The way the song bends the reggae-ska feel through rhythmic feel and digital effects and harmony shows how hedonistic behavior is always covering up some deeper melancholy. Over at Genuis, some people with knowledge of Nadsat and Polari have annotated the lyrics, and they get at the same theme of empty hedonism. The way that Bowie uses music and lyric to tell the same story in a way that requires a listener’s investment (though not unbearably so) is pretty damn masterful.

Track 6: Dollar Days

This track is opening up some new harmonic territory with the clear Major 7th chords at the top, oscillating back and forth. The acoustic guitar makes its first appearance, and the whole sonic atmosphere feels something out of ’60s pop—Bowie reach back in time for reassurance.

This is the clearest valediction on the album, especially with poignant lyric “Don’t believe for just one second that I’m forgetting you.” The simplicity and harmonic clarity of the song, after all the heady, dark, minor-key material from before, makes it all the more heartbreaking.

I’m struck by Bowie’s repeated aphorism, “I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” I can imagine “to” also being “too,” giving the phrase a tapestry of meaning. The singer works and wants—living, basically—but he’s dying, too. He can’t say anything more than these simple phrases, and then the music swells and his voice dissolves into the ether.

It’s really getting overwhelming here.

Track 7: I Can’t Give Everything Away

This song fades in under the previous one, droning and pulsing forward like something off one of Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” albums. The melody is really striking here, in that it doesn’t seem to fit with that ambient rock milieu. It moves up and down stepwise, emphasizing the 6th and 7th notes of the major scale. It really sounds like a tin pan alley tune, like “Unforgettable” or “It Had To Be You.” It’s as if Bowie is already singing from the beyond, a kind of transcendent cabaret.

The harmony is seemingly simple and clear, very tonal and major, but what’s surprising is how the music always ends up on a half-diminished chord that sits between the 4th and 5th steps of the scale. This adds a striking color the clear major key, a tinge of ambiguity or melancholy that beautifully sets up the move to the major IV chord.

The combination of the harmony, elemental melody, and lyrics shows a singer having come to grips with the end. After comforting others in the song before, he is now able to step into the beyond. There are always things left undone, but the singer is able to let go of these regrets and feel at peace.

As the outro spun out under Bowie’s final words, I was convinced that the song was going to end on that lush major IV chord. The tense and emotionally-fraught album will finally have resolved itself, a grand, Mahlerian cadence. However, the final chord progression stopped on the key’s minor VI chord, a darker and more troubling move. And yet, the chord gradually melted away, leaving an icy, open synthesizer dyad in the high register. This dyad is neither major nor minor, a partial resolution, yet ready to move off somewhere new. It’s as if Bowie is extending his hand out to the listener, gesturing for them to continue the story, continue making music and art and beautiful things of all kinds.

Again, words from Walt Whitman come to mind here:

I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Listening to Blackstar on this January Day

  1. Thanks for this. I read it with great interest. Stumbled upon your blog when I searched for comments on Bowie’s use of diminished chords on this album. I’d appreciate it if you could speak to that. This album strikes me as a masterpiece – working on multiple levels of the artform – musical structure and rhythmic devices, lyrics, musicianship, technology and studio production – to convey his personal experience of facing mortality. The use of diminished chords sounds intentionally designed to mirror Bowie’s diminished physical state. Does that sound right to you?

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