It's inevitable that David Bowie's untimely death has colored critical reception of Blackstar. Certainly, on the swirling obsidian gem "Lazarus"; he addresses mortality with lines like "I'll be free just like a bluebird." Set to Donny McCaslin's jazzy, seesawing saxophone and Ben Monder's noirish, Joy Division-styled guitar, the tune is laced with uncertainty, but it is also mystical and mischievous.
Bowie's best albums have always been maddeningly, playfully contradictory, and Blackstar is no exception. The title track may be his biggest "what the fuck" explosion since he unleashed his Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger on an unsuspecting public. With queasy and majestic orchestrations, martial drums and funereal, honking sax, "Blackstar" leads the listener all over the musical and emotional map before settling into a woozy, swinging show tune. It's dark and weirdly romantic, evoking not dread, but the mystery beyond the mortal veil.
In contrast, the limpid late night "Dollar Days" is one of the artist's most direct and heartfelt love songs. For each forward reaching experiment like "Girl Loves Me," a fractured sing-song fever dream delivered in invented language recalling dialog from the novel A Clockwork Orange, there is a gentle crooning ballad like "I Can't Give Anything Away" which looks backward with harmonica quotes form Low's sweetly yearning "A New Career in a New Town."
On one level, Blackstar is Bowie's farewell letter to the joy and the enigma of life. But it's also an ongoing examination of sex, politics and love. As an album it is less accessible than The Next Day from 2013, but it's better — darker, more challenging and more fun. Admittedly, Bowie has a perverse notion of fun, but his coal black humor has always been tempered with exuberance and enthusiasm. And that remains undimmed by death.