David Bowie died within days after the January 8, 2016 release of Blackstar, an event that immediately shaped perceptions of his 25th album. Unbeknownst to all but his inner circle, Bowie wrote and recorded Blackstar after receiving word that he had liver cancer, so the album was certainly shaped through the prism of this diagnosis. A close listen reveals how the album is littered with references to dying -- indeed, it concludes with a note of acceptance in "I Can't Give Everything Away" -- but Bowie's remarkable achievement with Blackstar is how it's an album about mortality that is utterly alive, even playful.
Unlike its predecessor, 2013's The Next Day, Blackstar doesn't carry the burden of ushering a new era in Bowie's career. Occasionally, the record contains a nod to his past -- two of its key songs, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" and "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore," were even aired in 2014 as a supporting single for the Nothing Has Changed compilation (both are revamped for this album) -- but Bowie and producer Tony Visconti are unconcerned with weaving winking postmodern tapestries; now that they've shaken free their creative cobwebs, they're ready to explore. Certainly, the luxurious ten-minute sprawl of "Blackstar" -- a two-part suite stitched together by string feints and ominous saxophone -- suggests Bowie isn't encumbered with commercial aspirations, but Blackstar neither alienates nor does it wander into uncharted territory. For all its odd twists, the album proceeds logically, unfolding with stately purpose and sustaining a dark, glassy shimmer. It is music for the dead of night but not moments of desolation; it's created for the moment when reflection can't be avoided. Fittingly, the music itself is suspended in time, sometimes recalling the hard urban gloss of '70s prog -- Bowie's work, yes, but also Roxy Music and, especially, the Scott Walker of Nite Flights -- and sometimes evoking the drum'n'bass dabbling of the '90s incarnation of the Thin White Duke, sounds that can still suggest a coming future, but in the context of this album these flourishes are the foundation of a persistent present. This comfort with the now is the most striking thing about Blackstar: it is the sound of a restless artist feeling utterly at ease not only within his own skin and fate but within his own time. To that end, Bowie recruited saxophonist Donny McCaslin and several of his New York cohorts to provide the instrumentation (and drafted disciple James Murphy to contribute percussion on a pair of cuts), a cast that suggests Blackstar goes a bit farther out than it actually does. Cannily front-loaded with its complicated cuts (songs that were not coincidentally also released as teaser singles), Blackstar starts at the fringe and works its way back toward familiar ground, ending with a trio of pop songs dressed in fancy electronics. This progression brings Blackstar to a close on a contemplative note, a sentiment that when combined with Bowie's passing lends the album a suggestion of finality that's peaceful, not haunting.