Album of the Year
Everybody experiences ★ differently. Naturally, there is consensus to be found in the obvious places, where criticisms overlap in the adulation and recognition of particular aspects of the album. But David Bowie and his music made such a personal impression on each listener: his presence was so huge, so totemic, meaning so much to so many in different ways, that his final work – and how his death irrevocably factors into it – affects its audience with myriad permutations. As such, we can only approach ★ with our own individual perspectives. There is so often a general temptation to give an artist too much credit in thinking that they have specifically planned and engineered audience reactions from the start, but in truth, most are simply smart enough to know how much space to leave in their work. Bowie was such an artist, and ★ is no less forward-thinking than his other masterpieces.
I am writing this piece exactly a year on from the man’s death, and I can remember the strangely vertiginous reaction I felt when the news reached me. Losing Bowie seemed unthinkable, more so than any other cultural icon. Even when he wasn’t present at the forefront of culture (or present at all, such as the lengthy period of silence preceding The Next Day), he still felt like an unconquerable and indispensable part of the world we understood. We relied on him, even if we didn’t directly acknowledge it. From the announcement of his death, throughout the entirety of 2016, I struggled to get past it, and specifically, I couldn’t get past ★. There have been other albums whose circumstances of release have irrevocably altered how they are heard, and 2016 alone seemed to offer more than its fair share (You Want it Darker, Skeleton Tree, HOPELESSNESS). But ★ is singular in its effect.
Trying to fully grasp that Bowie knew he was dying during the album’s creation is a challenge. For one thing, the energy alone that this undertaking must have demanded is mind-boggling to consider, and beyond this there is the haunting matter of how Bowie approached his looming mortality and channeled it into his music. Self-aware references to his own state and outright farewells poke out of the album with each listen, and some of the additional coincidences of its lyrics are just too much to process (“where the fuck did Monday go?”, we all gasped along with ‘Girl Loves Me’ on the 11th January). It’s too significant to dismiss the fact that ★ faces down death, but in pursuing this intense artistic vision, Bowie sounded reinvigorated to a degree unheard since his 1970s zenith.
Recruiting Donny McCaslin and a team of boundary-trampling jazz musicians yielded dazzling collaborative results that would have blown minds even if the context of the album was of little note. The music of ★ is magisterial and adventurous: a restless and excited leap into bold territory that pays dividends for the attentive listener. The assembled group complement Bowie’s focus perfectly, nailing an intensity and kinetic force that is guided with precision by the steady hands of Tony Visconti. I get goosebumps at every bump and stab of ‘Lazarus’ alone: the tremble in Bowie’s voice as he cries “look up here, man / I’m in danger”, the slicing guitars that punctuate the verses. Most powerful of all is the dramatic, terrifying ascension of McCaslin’s saxophone, relentlessly building to a feverish apex before a dizzying tumble back to darkness. If we choose to understand ★ as an exploration of death, then ‘Lazarus’ is its gravest dispatch.
But in a beautiful subversion of conventional expectations, Bowie never once sounds maudlin or self-pitying. Even in staring down death, he exhibits that characteristic playfulness that ran through even his most avant-garde outings. The unsettling moods of ★ are counterbalanced with Bowie’s nose-thumbing glee and occasional lapses into pure whimsy. “I’m the Great, I am!” he brags delightfully during the title track, slipping a few wisecracks into the song’s mantra as he goes (“I’m not a gangster”, “I’m not a flam star”, “I’m not a porn star”). It alludes to the zest for life and music that powered ★, and by God, it makes for wonderful listening. Teaming up with old and new faces alike one more time was a clear source of excitement for Bowie, and his exaltation to work alongside such talents is palpable on the magnificent ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’. (Apologies, but I have to break from pseudo-professionalism for a second. Fuck me, what a song this is.) The track is irrepressibly alive: Mark Guiliana’s pounding propulsion, the increasingly chaotic squalls of McCaslin’s sax, those gorgeous, brief twinkles of keys that give the verses a starry-eyed wonder. And then there are the lyrics: a jumble of weird, funny-dark imagery (“Black struck the kiss / She kept my cock”) before Bowie abandons words altogether and just screams in exhilaration.
The album’s moody centre is adventurous in a different fashion: the frantic, heavy groove of ‘Sue (In a Season of Crime)’ and the intoxicatingly sinister nonsense of ‘Girl Loves Me’ bear witness further to the passion Bowie poured into his last studio efforts, before ‘Dollar Days’ finally brings ★ to its stunningly emotional conclusion. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is the perfect ending to an album, and to a life’s work. There will surely be more songs exhumed and released in the years to come (as ‘No Plan’ was only a few days ago), but ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is Bowie’s final farewell, curated by the man himself. A beautiful, tender and brilliant work of songwriting, it earns its beaming, unfussy sentimentality as Bowie throws everything into his vocal performance, his rallying partners giving ★ its final, triumphant push towards the stars. And then it – and Bowie – is gone.
For all that ★ is filled with life, its subject is death, and across the album, Bowie confronts it with various attitudes: with fear, with defiance, with humour. Above all, however, he meets it with the same spirit of adventure that was the constant throughout his career, whether the results were adored, panned, or shrugged off. It’s testament not just to Bowie’s artistry, but to his own strength and personality that his final work matches the vigour of his very finest albums. We all view it differently, and for me personally, ★ is more than a masterpiece, and occupies a wholly unique place in the canon of recorded music.
It may only have been a year since ★ was released, but I have no doubt that it will continue to resonate as powerfully through the coming decades as it does currently. No matter the milieu, in times of joy, strife, optimism, and need, I will always lean on the music and the mythos of David Bowie. The man himself may have left the mortal world, but we need never say goodbye to the eternal art he gifted it. In his life and works, wherever he went and whatever he did, Bowie was always our spaceman, our adventurer, our great explorer of sound, style, life and more. Our Blackstar.
“Ain’t that just like me?”