Blackstar: David Bowie’s Under Appreciated Final Masterpiece

David Bowie has been gone for three years now, and as he said so beautifully so many years ago, “the stars look very different today.”

The year was 2015 and David Bowie, at the age of 68. was dying. Few outside of his family and close friends knew this, but he’d been diagnosed with cancer of the liver and the future wasn’t looking bright.

Bowie was as close to God-like status as one can be without being either a Beatle or Elvis. From his time has The Thin White Duke, to iconic tracks like “Space Oddity,” to his many concept albums and rock operas, most of which were written and performed in an array of strange characters, David had pushed the boundaries of rock music and music and general for his entire life and with 25 studio albums, five of them platinum in the US and nine platinum in the UK, he’s one of the most successful artists that ever lived.

On his 69th birthday, just two days before his death, Bowie released what is likely his darkest and most haunting artistic statement of his or any other career, his 25th LP, Blackstar. On it, Bowie deals in topics of death, mysticism, mortality, and the afterlife. The true artist he was, David Bowie had spent his final days writing and recording one last project, which he lived just long enough to see brought into the world. While the main thrust of this piece is to show you why you absolute must hear the record, it’s worth discussing why it hasn’t been as widely discussed as it should be.

The most obvious reason is that the record is far from accessible. Most of the instrumentation is made up a very dense and crushing form of Jazz and Bowie’s vocal melodies and lyrics are experimental to say the least. However, I’d say that there was another cause which weighed much heavier. Namely, Bowie’s death itself.

When a star of that magnitude passes away, fans often go back to classic releases to relive the golden days, and that caused many fans to ignore Blackstar. On top of that, the record itself is so dark and deals so heavily in death and mortality that it doesn’t allow listeners to escape to a time when Bowie was on top of the world again, but instead refuses to turn away from his death. All this being said, it’s long past time that Blackstar gets the respect it deserves.

Firstly, the record is instrumentally fascinating. Partnering with a litany of accomplished jazz artists with a flare for the experimental, Bowie created a project which is equal parts dense and dark. From the circling drums and staccato saxophones to the cacophonous backing vocals and the tasteful but jarring electronic elements, Blackstar rarely touches down on earth. Instead, it’s a orbits about, vaguely recognizable but never predictable.

This is, of course, before we touch on David’s performance itself which is simply breathtaking. His voice finds the perfect mix between power and sincerity and it’s generally our only tether to the real world, sonically. There are more than a few moments which could easily move a longtime fan to tears, even after multiple listens, either in his ability to honestly portray his own frailty or in the moments when everything comes together and just for one short moment, he’s back to his full glory.

The record’s best asset, without a doubt, is Bowie’s lyrics. There is just something indescribable about hearing one of the greatest artists that ever lived so unflinching facing his own demise. On Lazarus, Bowie details his own visualization of his walk into the afterlife beginning with the line, “look up here, I’m in heaven! I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” And, of course, on the opening, nine minute epic of a title track, he essentially writes a soundtrack to his own funeral.

Beyond all of this, the visuals involved with the record are stunning as well. The video for the title track is a psychedelic funeral for Bowie’s iconic Major Tom character from “Space Oddity” while the bizarre and at times frightening video for “Lazarus,” was packed with clues to his approaching demise long before his disease was known to the public.

Ultimately, the question is this: why should you listen to Blackstar? Why not remember Bowie as the almighty Ziggy Stardust and move on?  There are a few answers to this. The first is that Bowie intended this record to be his swan song and it should be treated as such. He spent his final moments creating this work of art and it should be respected by fans for what it’s meant to be.

That being said, there’s an even more important reason to visit this album which stands beyond just David Bowie himself. The fact is, there’s never been an album like Blackstar and there may never be again. To hear one of our greatest, an icon, and a truly brilliant artist confront death in its most real and inescapable form and he could think only of one thing, his music.

Blackstar is brave not only for the superficial reasons of it’s wide pallet and bizarre structures, but it is brave in the truest sense of staring death itself in the eyes, staring it down, and using your final breath to sing about what you see.

David Bowie has been gone for three years now, and as he said so beautifully so many years ago, “the stars look very different today.”

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

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CLASSIX REVIEW: Extreme’s Pornograffitti

Pornograffitti is an infinitely listenable and technically marvelous album that still holds up to this day, nearly 30 years later.

Extreme is a hard rock band from Boston Massachusetts. They’re generally considered one of the later members of the 80’s hair metal movement, though the majority of their success came in the 1990’s and saw them mixing elements of alternative and grunge rock into their work.   They debuted in 1989 with a self-titled LP after signing with A&M Records. The album found some mild success in the US and was enough to justify a follow up the following year, originally titled Extreme II: Pornograffitti, but eventually shortened to simply Pornograffitti. The album’s leading singles struggled to gain traction, as did the album upon initial release, but after the band released “More Than Words,” as a single, only to have it jet to number one on the billboard charts, they took off in the mainstream. Pornograffitti went double platinum receiving near universal acclaim, and for good reason.

While the album is obviously dripping with hair metal indulgence, there’s an often understated amount of genre crossing as well. “Get the Funk Out,” features a full horn section and heavy funk and Motown influences, while “When I First Kissed You,” is a Sinatra-esque croon that, while slightly tongue in cheek, hits most of the beats of the genre. The album as a whole utilizes musical tricks like syncopation from outside the metal genre to give the songs a more danceable quality.

There’s also a fairly large instrumental pallet on this album. “Li’l Jack Horny,” brings brass instrumentation into the fold in a more subtle way than “Get the Funk Out,” by using the power to bolster the guitar on the choruses. Additionally, the acoustic guitar on the closer, “Hole Hearted,” is an excellent change of pace at the end of the fairly long runtime.

Lyrically, there’s a certain sardonic comedy in much of Extreme’s writing that is somewhat ahead of its time. “When I’m President,” for example, is darkly comical, playing the large problems faced by the world as small and easily solved issues. The plan laid out for peace in the Middle East is particularly hilarious. “Money,” on the other hand, mocks the modern materialist culture quite effectively, especially with the tooth fairy skit intro.

The bass and drums, while often ignored when discussing this record, are actually quite excellent. On some of less flashy cuts like “Suzi,” or “It,” it really becomes clear that Paul Geary and Pat Badger are giving it there all on drums and bass respectively. The drums are relatively simple but perfectly mixed and explosively played, while the bass is rattling and adds a lot by simply following the guitar riffs.

Of course, Gary Cherone’s vocal work just can’t be ignored. On each of the 13 tracks, he really lays it all out in each performance, creating an exciting experience. Not only is he able to absolutely wail on songs like the title track, where his efforts rival that of even the best long-haired, metal icons from the 80’s, but he’s extremely versatile. On a song like “More Than Words,” it’s precisely Cherone’s ability to switch gears that makes it all work.

Above all this, however, Pornograffitti is an absolute master class of electric guitar from one of the best instrumentalists who ever lived, Nuno Bettencourt. Of course there are face-melting solos on nearly every track, one of my favorites of which comes near the end on “Song for Love,” but Nuno’s true talent comes in laying of extremely complex and lightning fast riffs across every song. Tracks like the opener, “Decadence Dance,” or my personal favorite piece, “He-Man Woman Hater,” live and die by Bettencourt’s excellent ear for melody and his undeniable ability to deliver each riff with precision and excitement.

As it nears its 30th anniversary, Extreme’s sophomore effort is every bit as incredible as it was on release. It’s drenched in 80’s attitude and indulgence while simultaneously featuring some of the most proficient and creative instrumental work of the 1990’s. The release fell at an odd time for rock music, just months before the grunge movement would take shock the world and transform the rock landscape, and because of this, it is all too often forgotten. It shouldn’t be.

Pornograffitti is an infinitely listenable and technically marvelous album that still holds up to this day, nearly 30 years later.

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2EjHq16

CLASSIX REVIEW: Tom T. Hall’s “In Search of a Song”

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.

Tom T. Hall is a country and bluegrass icon from Olive Hill, Kentucky. He debuted with two albums in 1969 and two more in 1970, all released on Mercury Records, who’m he’d work with all the way through the mid-90’s. He was known as “the Storyteller,” among fans because of his ability to weave narratives throughout each of his songs, and by the early 70’s, he was a staple in the country music world. 

He was also known for what he called “song hunting” trips, where he would travel through rural areas not unlike his small hometown. On these trips, he’d take notes and have conversations with locals in order to get a feel for the area he was visiting. Later, he’d reopen his notes and begin to write music, attempting to capture the spirit of the towns he’d just visited. This became a common practice in Hall’s music, certainly playing a role in the continually high quality of his output over his many years, but his skill as an author and story teller simply can’t be ignored. He would go on to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in late 2018, but before all of that, the year was 1971 when Tom T. Hall would release In Search of a Song. It’s the first full album to have resulted from one of his song-hunting trips and hailed as one of the best country and bluegrass records of all time, but is it all that good? Let’s discuss.

The album’s best quality comes in Hall’s lyricism, particularly when he’s telling a story. Tracks like “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” and “The Little Lady Preacher,” carry direct narratives, one of which is quite moving and the latter a bit comical. The ability to weave a storyline across verses is somewhat lost in modern country music, but Hall was one of the best to ever do it. His rhyme schemes are simple and his stories are remarkably descriptive, not to mention inthralling.

While the traditional narrative structures are interesting, he also has a talent for what I would call descriptive narrative. On tracks like my favorite on the album, “Trip to Hyden,” “A Million Miles to the City,” or “Kentucky, February 27, 1971,” Hall uses storylines to provide description of and commentary on the area he writes about. The story becomes cursory to the experience, and thanks to the fantastically visual writing, listeners are able to experience the towns and people first themselves.

In addition to these two styles, each track is decorated with Tom’s unique sense of humor. The most obvious and well known example of this comes on “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs,” but tracks like “Ramona’s Revenge,” and “Tulsa Telephone Book,” are colored with subtle jokes and comedy throughout. His real skill as a lyricist shows in the way his humor and personality permeate every aspect of every track. Hall is always able to use himself as a sympathetic main character, or at least narrator, thanks to the many jokes and relatable thoughts he expresses throughout.

On top of all this, the instrumentation is fantastic. From the howling harmonica on “It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines,” to the sweet guitar on “Second Hand Flowers,” and even the surprising rock influences on “L.A. Blues,” each track is perfectly played by a talented cast of musicians, many of whom are Nashville legends in their own right and fellow members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s a veritable who’s who of 70’s Nashville studio musicians and each of them does fantastic work on In Search of a Song.

Ultimately, In Search of a Song is one of the best country/bluegrass records of all time. Thanks to talented instrumentalists and an uncanny talent for lyricism, Tom T. Hall was able to craft a truly unique piece of country music that is still hailed to this day for it’s storytelling qualities.

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.