David Bowie – “Something happened on the day he died” – Why ‘Blackstar’ is one of his masterpieces
Much has been said already, on the weekend of the fifth anniversary of David Bowie’s passing. This is an artist whose unique and enigmatic body of work will never defy further study, and such is open to constant analysis and appreciation.
As top five/ten/twenty lists no doubt begin to populate the musical Twittersphere and a slew of new retrospectives abound, it feels like a timely point to ensure that Bowie’s latest masterpiece – and one of his greatest, come to that – doesn’t get overlooked. Because as nostalgia rules the waves, the scores of famous fans lining up to talk Ziggy Stardust might just neglect to mention that the great master of rock theatre masterminded whole new worlds right up until the moment he fell from earth.
It is time to shine a light on ‘Blackstar’.
When David Bowie revealed what would be his final album, on his 69th birthday in 2016, the record sent music writers and fans alike into an analytical frenzy. Typical of the superstar’s late work, ‘Blackstar’ was shrouded in mystery; the music was rich with hip-hop and jazz experimentation, and the lyrics awash with occultist religious symbolism of the sort Bowie had long dabbled in.
Questions from listeners were rife, addressed publicly in reviews and comments sections. What was this world Bowie had conceptualised? Who was Lazarus meant to represent? Most importantly, what was it all supposed to lead up to?
Two days later, the frantic masses got their answer. David Bowie had died.
“I can’t give everything away…”
The emotion that followed the Starman’s passing would be indescribable, if we hadn’t all experienced it. The new allegories around death drawn from his songs, the mural in Brixton…international mourning. Of course, the LP the world now knew to be a parting gift was held as the artefact from beyond it suddenly seemed to be. Poring through the lyrics made it so obvious that Bowie had intended it this way; the chameleonic character actor-director had somehow managed to stage manage his own death.
The critical acclaim, already on its way for the remarkable record, ascended to another level following the artist’s passing. Number one spot on so many end-of-year lists followed, tagged with the inescapable retelling of how the man from another planet foretold his own exit from it.
Five years on from the album’s release – and Bowie’s death, however, ‘Blackstar’ doesn’t get talked about on its own merits as much as it could. Perhaps it is because of the lack of radio-ready classics among the apocalyptic jazz; the main single from the record was ‘Lazarus’, a brooding black hole of a track in which Bowie spoke of his demise in the most straightforward terms possible. Indeed, the first verse begins “look up here, I’m in heaven”.
It’s hardly ‘Let’s Dance’, if we’re being real about pop sensibilities – and that’s the most pop track of them all.
Leaving aside further ruminations on radio playlisting or the nostalgia that often favours an artist’s work, perhaps ‘Blackstar’ is just too harrowing a listen for many fans. It is both musically and lyrically unflinching, with layers of unedited honesty lurking just beyond the shadows of mystery. I first listened to the record on that fateful day, and was hooked for weeks. Since then, it has been hard to find the courage to drop the needle on this particular record; such was Bowie’s ability to immerse the listener in the world he had created.
Listening on the day that he died, it felt like you could almost have been in the room where he took his final breaths. This record remains the sound of a life flashing before a set of mismatched eyes; and not just the life of any mere mortal.
“Why too dark to speak the words?”
It’s been half a decade. Five years of the life and work of David Bowie being consistently, ritually dissected and re-appraised. The less cool work, the less Berlin albums, even Tin Machine gets another chance.
Somehow, it feels as if ‘Blackstar’ hasn’t had its hearing for induction into the canon of Bowie’s greatest work. In the humble opinion of this writer, it absolutely deserves mention in the same breath as Ziggy, Diamond Dogs and all that transpired in Berlin.
The extraordinary circumstances around its conception and release aside, ‘Blackstar’ is remarkable in its rewriting of the rules around late-career renaissance. Its predecessor ‘The Next Day’ was received as such, but postured itself far more as a new exhibition of the Spaceboy’s old tricks; in doing so, it missed the artist’s greatest work – reinvention.
‘Blackstar’ is an exceptional reinvention indeed.
This record, its chaos and experimentation unheard of from Bowie in so long, the ritualistic darkness, presented perhaps the darkest form of Bowie’s many personas ever witnessed. In this context, his impending death is nothing but another small tool utilised in the process of transformation. Bowie the soothsayer, Bowie the occultist; playing with themes he toyed with as early as ‘Hunky Dory’, but which understandably sound far more sinister against this sonic backdrop than they did in his folk-rock days.
The deliberation with which such a bold new sound was created is enough to earn this record mythical status. More to the point; it is truly remarkable that a man who had explored near enough every available avenue managed to find new directions so late on. But of course, that’s just Bowie’s style.
Even the band was new – a jazz ensemble found in New York. Bowie had long flirted with jazz, but wanted to experiment more fully with the genre; longtime collaborator and producer Tony Visconti said that jazz musicians playing rock would take the established formula and “[turn] it upside down”.
“Ain’t that just like me?”
Much was made in the music press about the record’s hip-hop influences. To broaden their sonic palettes, Bowie and Visconti had largely listened to Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed ‘To Kill a Butterfly’ while making the album. It was also reported that Bowie had taken influence from the industrial noise-rap of Death Grips. It would, of course, be a fool’s errand to label ‘Blackstar’ as a hip-hop record – or anything other than a singular and enigmatic work.
The energy of the record’s varied beats, from the jazz-thru-techno of the opening title track through the frenetic trip-hop of ‘Girl Loves Me’, renders the pace and mood of the album thrillingly unpredictable. In this way, it matches the lyrics; contradictory in terms, at once retrospective and creative, gratefully retiring and aggressively defiant. Most typically of Bowie, the mysterious and surreal brushes up frequently against the almost brutally honest. Final track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ is a parting gift with a touch of tenderness – the artist at his most reflective.
Of course, with an artist so familiar to so many, some hallmarks remain. While throwing out all expectations, this album sounds more like Bowie than anything he released in the 20 years prior. It is in the most unexpected moments that you notice this.
The jazzy glam stomp that punctuates the second half of the title track is pure Thin White Duke, while the almost secret language employed in the many metaphors of the lyrics comes with the wry delivery that Bowie made his own across generations. He knows you’re trying to figure out what he means, he knows you won’t and he definitely knows that he sounds fucking cool doing it.
Even in his final moments as a performer, David Bowie managed to outstyle just about everyone else on the planet.
There is far more to say about ‘Blackstar’ than any music critic could ever manage. This is a record that is experienced far better than it is discussed; a singular piece of art that almost defies explanation. It is unquestionably one of David Bowie’s best records.
Most importantly, far from the curtain falling on the man and the myth, this was Bowie’s last act of ensuring that people would never stop wondering. Never stop looking in awe. Never truly understand.