David Bowie’s “Backstair”: Music review

“Look up here I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me know”

So begins the first verse of “Lazarus,” a song that has become spookily haunting in light of Bowie’s passing. Mournful horns make a soft funereal dirge as Bowie sings of flying free like a bird:

“This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Aint that just like me”

I never expected this would be the last Bowie album I’d have a chance to listen to and review. In fact the album arrived as a Christmas present from my mother on the Saturday before Bowie’s passing, yet I put it aside to listen to at a later date, given a pile-up of new music. Those plans changed when I woke up on Monday morning to the gutting news.
As a child I was at the mercy of whatever musical tastes my older brothers pursued, and sometime in the early 80s my oldest brother Oisin was introduced to Bowie and hence the Greatest Hits cassette tape went into regular rotation on the tape deck. Songs like “John, I’m only dancing” with its crazy falsetto, “Life on Mars” in which I heard “lemons on sale again” instead of “Lennon’s on sale again” and mention of Mickey Mouse which echoed back to the mousy hair of the girl who opens the song being yelled at by her father: familiar territory for the young child hearing these songs. They captivated me and formed a deep impression – here was music unlike anything else, and so varied from song to song. Bowie is one of the few artists that command such an undying depth of absolute respect.

The title track and opener for “Blackstar” winds its way in, subtle and graceful with strings / synth, horns, guitar, bass, drums, and Bowie’s haunting vocals, gliding around a progression with vaguely Arabian touches. Around 4 mins in there’s a transition and a slowing of the tempo, where a strange harmony protests “I’m a blackstar.”

It’s been said all over the internet and all over the media that this album is Bowie’s parting gift, his self epitaph, his meditation on his impending death, and indeed death pervades the lyrics:
“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)”

Is he foreseeing a future carrier of the legacy? Is it his own spirit stepping aside?
What precisely is being said here? I’m sure articles upon articles are speculating, and I won’t trouble myself whether I can figure it out, but I wonder is Bowie speaking to himself about himself when he sings “How many times does an angel fall? How many people lie instead of talking tall?”
Bowie was like something fallen out of the sky, unique and unlike anything else washed upon the earth. How many people could walk as tall, or talk as tall, as he did, driven by a rare integrity?
Is he admonishing himself towards some humility or admonishing someone else to know their place and their rank when he chastises “You’re a flash in the pan – I’m the Great I Am.”
For all the outcasts and the outsiders, here’s Bowie once more giving us the music that knew us, understood us: “We were born upside-down – Born the wrong way ‘round.”
“Blackstar” segues out in a skirmish of muffled guitar plucks and horn flutters and makes way for the uptempo “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” in which Bowie’s tone seems less complaint and more half-bemused acceptance.

The third track, “Lazarus,” forms the centerpiece of the album, grimly persistent, accepting of mortality and the inevitable, swirling up into the sky not without regrets or sadness, but sadly epic and triumphant.
“Sue (Or In A Season of Crime)” steps the tempo up, back-beats and gritty basslines while Bowie’s vocal melodies get positively experimental.
The lyrics for “Girl loves me” seem to move into the abstract, into pseudo language or a dialect or language I’m not familiar with, before “Dollar Days” leaves us with an image of Bowie never reaching some quiet pastoral respite. The image is a heartbreaking and wrenching semi-finale to this 26th Bowie album, this beautiful masterpiece:
“If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to me
It’s nothing to see”

The album closes with “I can’t give everything away.” Bowie gave everything he had, right to the end.


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