David Bowie – Blackstar

Origin: Starman

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Genres: art music, experimental rock, genius, jazz

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Blackstar (stylised as ★) is the twenty-fifth and final studio album by English singer David Bowie. It was released worldwide through Bowie’s ISO Records label on January 8, 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday. Bowie died two days after its release. Co-producer Tony Visconti described the album as Bowie’s intended swan song and a “parting gift” for his fans before his death.

Blackstar was met with critical acclaim and commercial success, reaching the number one spot in a number of countries in the wake of Bowie’s death, and becoming Bowie’s first and only album to reach number one on the Billboard 200 album chart in the U.S. The album remained at the no. 1 position in the UK charts for three weeks before being replaced by one of Bowie’s compilation albums, Best of Bowie.

Bowie recorded the album in the midst of an ongoing battle with cancer. His illness was only known by those very close to him and that remained so until the news of his death became public, two days after the album’s release. It became apparent immediately after that many lyrics seem to come from a man who knows death is near. Like The Next Day, recording of this album took place in secret at The Magic Shopand Human Worldwide Studios in New York City. Bowie began writing and making demos for songs that appear on Blackstar as soon as sessions for The Next Day concluded. The two songs that appear on Blackstar that were previously released, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” and “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, were re-recorded for Blackstar, including new saxophone parts played on the latter song by Donny McCaslin (replacing parts Bowie played on the original release).The title of the latter derives from the title ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a play by John Ford, an English dramatist of the 17th century. McCaslin and the rest of the jazz group recorded their parts in the studio over a period of about one week a month from January to March 2015, and were unaware of Bowie’s declining health.The song “Lazarus” was included in Bowie’s Off-Broadway musical of the same name.

The music on Blackstar  has been characterized as incorporating art rock, jazz, and experimental rock. According to producer Tony Visconti, they deliberately attempted “to avoid rock’n’roll” while making the album, and he and Bowie had been listening to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly during the recording sessions and cited it as an influence. Electronic duo Boards of Canada and experimental hip-hop trio Death Grips have also been cited as influences.Saxophone was the first instrument Bowie learned, and he was a keen listener to jazz in his youth. Both Billboard and CNN noted that Bowie’s lyrics seem to revolve around his impending death, with CNN noting that the album “reveals a man who appears to be grappling with his own mortality”.

The title track was released as a first single on November 19, 2015 and was used as the opening music for the television series The Last Panthers. “Lazarus” was released on  December 17, 2015 as a digital download, and received its world premiere on BBC Radio 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq Show the same day.

The artwork for Blackstar  was designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, who had designed the artwork for Bowie’s Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day. The CD cover is adorned with a large black star on a plain white background, with the six star segments below the main star forming the word ‘B O W I E’ in stylized letters. The vinyl cover, in black, features the star as a cutout section, revealing the vinyl (with an all-black picture label) beneath it. It was observed that the Unicode for a black star symbol (★) is U+2605, May 26 being the birthday of Bowie’s former guitarist Mick Ronson. It was also observed that a “black star lesion,” usually found inside a breast, suggests to medical practitioners evidence of certain types of cancer.

Blackstar sold 146,000 copies in its first week on sale in the United Kingdom (a week which saw four other Bowie albums in the top 10 and a further seven in the top 40, the latter equalling Elvis Presley’s chart record) and more than 181,000 in the United States. Within days of the album’s release, online retailer Amazon.com temporarily sold out of both the CD and LP editions of the album. In the week January 11-17, Blackstar was the number 1 most downloaded album in 25 iTunes national charts.

Blackstar received widespread acclaim from music critics. At Metacritic, the album received an average score of 87, which indicates “universal acclaim”, based on 41 reviews. Rolling Stone critic David Fricke described the album as “a ricochet of textural eccentricity and pictorial-shrapnel writing”. Andy Gill of The Independent regarded the record as “the most extreme album of [Bowie’s] entire career”, stating that “Blackstar is as far as he’s strayed from pop.” Reviewing for Q magazine, Tom Doyle wrote, “Blackstar is a more concise statement than The Next Day and a far, far more intriguing one.” In a favourable review for Exclaim!, Michael Rancic wrote that Blackstar is “a defining statement from someone who isn’t interested in living in the past, but rather, for the first time in a while, waiting for everyone else to catch up”.

The New York Times described the album as “at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans”. Pitchfork Media’s review of Blackstar was written on the day of the album’s release, two days before Bowie’s death, and concluded with the line “This tortured immortality is no gimmick: Bowie will live on long after the man has died. For now, though, he’s making the most of his latest reawakening, adding to the myth while the myth is his to hold.”