Two years on from his death, Bowie's final album is a lingering masterpiece

His final album may have been his boldest statement of all. 

David Bowie’s 25th studio album arrived less than three years after his long-awaited comeback, The Next Day. We begin with the title track, an operatic piece that circumvents verse-chorus-verse format to unfurl a sequence of distinct sections. In line with the sci-fi invoking title, Bowie’s vocals appear to be filtered through the mask of a Sith lord. It conveys an unnerving sense of mystery, akin to the unknown figure in a dream whose face flicks into view at intermittent intervals long after waking. The eerie vocal is propelled forward by skittering hip hop beats and a saxophone weeping like the liver of a tramp.

'Blackstar' paves the way for what’s to come in that it’s not just Bowie’s voice and captivating idiosyncrasies on show. Bowie’s always been one of rock and pop’s finest directors, seizing on a vision and assembling the necessary players to bring it to life. The musicians all get a chance to strut their stuff while crucially evading the sound of a compliant session ensemble. Drummer Mark Guiliana, in particular, is completely invested in the songs, playing with the resolute urgency of an associate in combat.

'‘Tis a Pity She Was A Whore' places Donny McCaslin’s saxophone and Jason Linder’s Wurlitzer organ side by side in a competitive jazz freakout. Gospel backing vocals from Erin Tonkon appears later in the piece, which follows a straighter path than the opening track but is by no means a by-numbers soul pop song. Guiliana hits like he’s playing in front of a packed Wembley Stadium, while Bowie maintains composure, sounding a touch bemused as he repeats the title refrain. The sax playing depicts the chaos of the lyrical realisation, and the instrumental intensity persistently accelerates, but doesn’t crash or sound calculated.  

'Lazarus'lets us breathe again. Bowie dons an electric guitar, providing stabbed accents that impress like streaks of paint hurled at a canvas. The song’s conveyed from the perspective of Lazarus, and the line “By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king” could well be a nod to Nick Cave. He sings of being free, which fits – as weird or darkly irreverent as Bowie can be, he never sounds weighed down.

Production-wise, a perspiring dynamic range, tending to the specific needs of each song, replaces the steady clarity of 'The Next Day'. 'Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)' rhythmically resembles a Battles song, pairing a bassy guitar groove with a syncopated drumbeat. Bowie’s voice is also used percussively, bouncing off the rhythmic foundations.

Bowie steadfastly brushes past what might be expected, as always. 'Dollar Days'adopts a familiar descending chord progression and melodically alludes to English folk music. However, the conventional tone wasn’t fated to last, soon twisting into a much more warped bridge section. Scott Walker’s influence rears its head on the album closer, I Can’t Give Everything Away, in the form of a grand, weight-suspending string arrangement. Here McCaslin’s sax transforms into a reinless animal, somewhat akin to Warren Ellis’ violin playing in the Dirty Three.

As the album progresses you forget that this is David Bowie – an artist with so much pop cultural history and artistic significance – and fall under the spell of a masterful innovator.