In The Center of It All

A Posthumous Review of Blackstar by David Bowie.

Blackstar CD Cover
Blackstar CD Cover

On January 7th, the academic journal Nature published historic evidence that will push physicists in new directions concerning large-amplitude oscillations in black holes. These oscillations, the bright and massive energy flow of black hole V404 Cygni, were for the first time observed using ground telescopes. Black holes are usually super-massive stars that have extinguished and imploded, crunching all matter crossing its horizon while jettisoning the material faster than the speed of light from a center of infinite gravity.

The next day, David Bowie released Blackstar, his new album which — prior to public knowledge that his life would be extinguished — was critically lauded for going in new directions, punctuating a large-scale career of sonic oscillations. Once again, he became the one-of-a-kind artist whose influence was unstoppable, whose identity was elusive.

Then he passed on, on January 10. What I am suggesting to you is that his portal came along and he took the ride to another dimension. Maybe David Bowie actually is V404 Cygni.

Observing the social media phenomenon when the news broke, it was revealed that everybody likes David Bowie — for their own reason. And the new album is really progressive. I only listened to the record after hearing about his death.

The record, if listened to straight, takes on a journey that reaches new territory with each of the seven tracks. It is everything you might want a Bowie album to be, with rich arrangements, brilliant production, and hooking melodies. Guiding that journey is the acclaimed jazzist Donny McCaslin and his bandmates, including drummer Mark Guiliana. James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) had stepped into the project with a potentially larger role that never really came to fruition, although he managed to earn two percussion credits on the album.

The McCaslin-led band worked well with Bowie. They not only pushed his repertoire into a wider orbit, together they defined an emerging crossover sound for jazz, electronic, and pop music, that artists have been experimenting with around the world for years. Bowie is really good at defining artistic statements. Portland’s Blue Cranes have gone to this territory before; Dawn of Midi, Robert Glasper, and BBNG are some popular breakthrough artists sharing this orbit with Bowie. But as Producer Tony Visconti put it, “I can’t wait for all the Blackstar imitation albums to come out.” This most definitely will happen, because this record has already become a cornerstone in music history.

The opening title track, “Blackstar,” grabs me with creeping rhythms, ominous harmonies, and poetic imagery. “In the villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle, in the center of it all your eyes.” Edited down in post to just under ten minutes (because iTunes won’t release singles over ten minutes) the song is its own short story — an epoch within the epic of the whole album.

It is worth noting that Bowie’s integrity and creativity as an artist connected all the way through the business arrangements. He was the first to package future music income into a bond that could be sold to investors with a guaranteed rate of return. He managed to repay every “Bowie Bond” that he issued. The result is that he controlled his intellectual property completely while he redistributed the revenue to his own liking. His final estate may be valued at $100M. It may not be a perfect model yet for new artists, but it further erodes the creative tether of the corporate sponsor.

Thank You, Bowie, for all the gifts you have given.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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