Arachnophonia: David Bowie “Blackstar”

Editor’s note: Arachnophonia is a regular feature on our blog where members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items in the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

Today’s installment of Arachnophonia is by Music Library student worker, Gabi (class of 2020), and features Blackstar , the 25th and final album from English musician, David Bowie. Thanks, Gabi!

David Bowie

Blackstar

David Bowie - Blackstar

On what would have been David Bowie’s 71st birthday, an HBO original documentary titled, David Bowie: The Last Five Years premiered on the channel. The film explores the end of Bowie’s career, ranging from his last ever live performance in 2004, to the release of his final album, Blackstar, and corresponding music videos. The film revealed a new side of Bowie to me, and as a longtime fan, I was intrigued by the processes behind his later work, which he kept so concealed from the public–until now. It has inspired me to write about Bowie’s final album, his swan song, Blackstar.

HBO Doc promo

Blackstar came out when I was a senior in high school. I had listened to Bowie’s complete discography throughout my teenage years and was caught by surprise when he released a full-length album in 2016. Upon first listen, the album is very unique compared to his others, which says a great deal considering every one of Bowie’s albums represents a different stylistic era of Bowie. The album is concise, featuring only 7 tracks and a running time of 41 minutes. A new influence of jazz is also noticeable throughout the record, especially on track 4: “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)“. This track featured collaborators like Maria Schneider, a notable jazz musician and composer. Bowie even cited Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that fuses hip-hop and jazz, as an inspiration for this choice.

This jazz influence overtakes that of rock’n’roll, which many would associate as Bowie’s main style. There is also something distinctly darker and ominous in the sound of Bowie’s voice on this album as compared to others. This, paired with the mix of new, experimental styles, made the listen of Blackstar a unique one for a Bowie fan. What would he do next? Did Blackstar mark a definite new era in Bowie’s sonic exploration?

Two days after the album’s release, before having much time to process or interpret this new sound, David Bowie passed away from liver cancer. The world was heartbroken, as the disease had been kept a secret from the public since its inception. It was not until his passing, however, that the public uncovered the true genius behind Blackstar: it is encrypted with secret messages that allude to Bowie’s death.

In the title track, Bowie sings,

“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)”

Bowie - astronaut

Throughout his career, Bowie sung about space in a myriad of ways. On the song “Star”, from his 1973 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, he calls himself a rock n roll star, but now, he has faded to black. In the music video for Blackstar, we even see a nod to Major Tom himself in the opening shot, as a man in a space suit looks up at a gigantic, black star.

Track 3, “Lazarus“, opens with the lines,

“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 now”

Here, Bowie is literally calling to his listeners from the afterlife, reflecting on his time as a public figure. The corresponding music video features Bowie lying tensely in a hospital bed, and eventually he is dragged into a dark closet, almost like he was dragged away from life into death.

Tony Visconti, longtime producer, collaborator, and friend of Bowie, said that this album was Bowie’s “parting gift” to his fans. Two years after his death, the gift still resonates, and the musical risks he took throughout the project are reminders that even in his weakest days, Bowie was an innovator, and will always be remembered as one.

avid Bowie - Blackstar portrait

Arachnophonia: Amy Winehouse “Back to Black”

Editor’s note: Arachnophonia is a regular feature on our blog where members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items in the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

Today’s installment of Arachnophonia is by Music Library student worker, Eve (class of 2020) and features English singer songwriter Amy Winehouse’s second and final studio album Back to Black. Thanks, Eve!

Amy Winehouse

Back to Black

Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Amy Winehouse is famed for her distinctive voice and mastery of jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul, and the English singer-songwriter’s second album Back to Black reflects the impressive vocals and originality that brought her to fame. The album was released in 2006 and earned Winehouse five Grammy Awards, the 2007 Best British Female Artist Brit Award, and world-wide recognition.

Amy Winehouse - Rolling Stone Cover 2007

Winehouse on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, June 2007

Yet in many ways, Back to Black reflects the unhappy circumstances that surrounded Winehouse’s life and led to her untimely death at the age of 27. For example, songs such as “Back to Black” and “Rehab” reveal themes of depression and substance addiction struggles, while “Love is a Losing Game” speaks to the toxic nature of Winehouse’s romantic relationships. Still, darker elements of the album are balanced by upbeat tracks, and song such as “Tears Dry On Their Own” provide a refreshing message of self-confidence and perspective. If viewed through the lens of Amy Winehouse’s life, the honesty and rawness of Back to Black is moving, yet tracks also stand on their own for listener interpretation. In this way, Back to Black can be heard as a musical feat, tribute to Winehouse and medium for artistic contemplation.

Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Arachnophonia: Jack Johnson “In Between Dreams”

Editor’s note: Arachnophonia is a regular feature on our blog where members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items in the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

Today’s installment of Arachnophonia is by Music Library student worker,Emma (class of 2021) and features In Between Dreams a Jack Johnson album from 2005. Thanks, Emma!

Jack Johnson

In Between Dreams

Jack Johnson - In Between Dreams

This CD was released in 2005, though the music on it is timeless. Jack Johnson’s songs are relaxing, beachy, and easy to listen to. They remind me of a summer day but yet I play them all year round. This album was his third studio release, and many of his most popular songs are on it. Some of my favorites are “Banana Pancakes” (the name says it all), “Breakdown“, “Better Together,” and “Constellations.” I remember first hearing his music on the soundtrack to the Curious George movie when I was little, and ever since then Jack Johnson has been one of my go-to favorites. I’ve never met someone who didn’t like his songs! I hope he releases some new music soon!

Jack Johnson  - Bonnaroo 2005

New CDs added in January & February

New CDs for January & February 2018

Concertos and Chamber Music

Ludwig van Beethoven- Sonatas – Andrew Rangell Piano
Carl Fruhling – Clarinet Trios
David Rakowski – Etudes
David Rakowski – Stolen Moments

Rakowski - Stolen Moments

Jazz

Ceclie McLorin Salvant – Dreams and Daggers

Salvant - Dreams and Daggers

Art Songs

Virgil Thomson – Three Pictures

Thomson - Three Pictures

Choral Music

Claudio Monteverdi – Eternal Monteverdi: Vespro Della Beata Vergine 1650

Monteverdi - Vespro 1650

World Music

Brooklyn Raga Massive – Terry Riley In C

Brooklyn Raga Massive