The Best Albums of 2016, #6

band016. David Bowie, Blackstar (ISO)

How often does a major artist have an opportunity to create a work that they are fully aware will very likely be their swan song? As sad as it was for the world to lose David Bowie at the age of 69 in early January, it felt so perfect for such a chameleonic, versatile, groundbreaking artist to put a final stamp on a 50-year career. That part of Blackstar, the part that will see it forever known as the final work of David Bowie, will always loom over this work. However, and this is most important to yours truly, upon hearing “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” prior to the album’s release, I was struck by the fact that it was the first time I’d been truly mesmerized by new David Bowie music in a very long time. Although I’d admired bits and pieces of his post-‘80s work (“I’m Afraid of Americans” is probably the last track of his I loved) Blackstar is so commanding and effortless in its experimentalism that it hearkens back to his artistic peak of his Berlin period, specifically Low, which for the longest time was my favourite Bowie album. More specifically, judged against the rest of his entire body of work, it is his finest album since Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).

There’s so much happening on Blackstar, but the intelligence of it is how Bowie and Tony Visconti harness so many different influences and styles with such discipline. The ten-minute title track is a marvel, and the finest example; it has everything from drum and bass beats, to singing derived from Gregorian chants, to jazz saxophone, to krautrock, to the surrealism of latter-day Scott Walker, to an absolutely lovely section that echoes the cosmic sounds of Hunky Dory, yet it all holds together thanks to the supreme skill of the duo. It’s like that throughout the entire record, whose epic breadth and scope belies its surprisingly scant 41-minute running time. “Lazarus” is so languid and pretty, one of several moments where Bowie confronts his own mortality. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings, “Oh I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Oh I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me,” as a saxophone sends the song skyward. “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” is an incredible re-recording of his 2013 song, with the jazz ratcheted up to the point of sounding unsettlingly taut, while “Dollar Days” sees him playing around with the fictional Nadsat slang from A Clockwork Orange. By the time he gets to the sublime denouement “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, it’s not darkness or brooding or sorrow that you sense, but joy. “Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.” Bowie’s was a life well lived, his body of work is his testament, and Blackstar is as perfect an epitaph as anyone could have hoped for.