He’s dead. So that’s what it all meant.
January 8th 2016 saw the release of David Bowie’s latest album, Blackstar. For a few months now, Bowie had been releasing songs from this album in a controlled trickle. I admit, when I first heard the titular track, I was a little baffled. It was certainly interesting, but I thought it was very weird, weird even for Bowie. The song was acid-jazz by way of an ancient Babylonian ritual, slapped together with some bluesy sax, and with lyrics that could only be (and were avidly) described as cryptic. While I was happy to see my hero was still experimenting and trying to push the boundaries of what his music and music in general had become, I wondered if he had gone a bit too far.
Then, on January 10th, 2016, he died. I found out this morning, on January 11th, and at first all I could think was “oh.” So that’s what it was all about. It all made sense.
And I listened to the album. And it was achingly, devastatingly beautiful, and it was how he chose to say goodbye to me and you and everybody. For a man who had flickered from persona to persona, he went to his grave with one final title on his lips: Blackstar.
Bowie and his band do not open the album with a bang, so much as a gathering shadow. As the mellow guitars, twitching pipes, and stuttering drums fade in, it acts as an awakening, with the listener finding themselves tangled in sweaty sheets, unable to move but with eyes wide open, and a growing terrible certainty of a malevolent force gathering in the darkest corner of the room. Then, just as the song snaps into a comfortingly familiar western time signature, the album’s first reference to death appears.
“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”
This is the first of Bowie’s many references to his own encroaching end. “The clinic called, the x-rays fine, I brought you home” he bitterly sings on the manic, drum-and-bass inspired “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)”, and on the mournful “Dollar Days” he weighs in on the afterlife: “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to, It’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see”. Still, it is on “Girl Loves Me”, amidst all the clockwork-orange slang, that he feels the most straightforward and honest, with the blunt refrain of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Time runs out for us all.
This morbidity pervades throughout the entire album, sad and distant, with Bowie singing as though he were already in the grave. His voice sounds weak, and frequently cracks, but it does not detract. This is still very strong vocal work, matched only by the bizarre and fascinating instrumental work and production. Among this album’s influences were Death Grips, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and Boards of Canada. That’s quite a combination, but while you can hear traces of these artists in the music, it is still relentlessly Bowie. Amid all the sonic innovation and weirdness, it is hard to miss certain sonic and lyrically references to his past career; the title song alone evokes both the long, harrowing coke-nightmare of Station to Station, and the melancholy hippy swoon of Space Oddity. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” finds Bowie singing about WWI, but also blurring gender roles as he always has: “Man, she punched me like a dude” he laments, as the song beats relentlessly along, before breaking into a whaling sax solo. Like much of the album, it sounds like something he would have written during his stint in Berlin, with booming fast drums and layer upon layer of synth and guitar. Meanwhile, acoustic guitar crops up all over the album, hauntingly reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie, in his own inimitable manner, is summarizing a career even as he explores uncharted new territories.
This album, for me, had two highlights. The first is “Lazarus”, a slow dirge wherein Bowie ostensibly sings about drug use, though of course he is actually singing about his oncoming demise. Bowie has always hid behind masks, but as he would often admit, the mask could and would become more real than the man behind them. This song, particularly when coupled with the video, is clearly about death; but the lyrics are still confusing, and cryptic, and misleading. Bowie sounds afraid on this song. He doesn’t want anyone to know what’s wrong, but he’s desperate to express it. He’s scared to die. He’s scared for us to see that. Above all else, he’s scared that we won’t see it. It’s a statement of death only he could make.
It is the final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” that is the true standout for me, however. As the song begins, a harmonica soars in, a harmonica line achingly similar to that of “A New Career in a New Town” from Low. This song is an apology. When Ziggy Stardust died, he was torn apart by a black hole, every piece of him devoured by his fame and his fans. Bowie, broken-heartedly, admits that he cannot do this. “I can’t give everything away,” he cries, begging our forgiveness that, after giving us so much, he still had to keep some small morsel of his life for himself.
Bowie was dying, and he gave us one final album. One final brilliant, moving, impossibly creative piece of art. He had nothing left to prove; if he had passed without putting out this album, no one would have tried to remove his title as one of the all-time greats. But he took time from his last year in the living world to give us this music, and in the end, all he could do was apologize for not giving us more.
David Bowie is dead, and the world is an emptier, sadder place without him. He taught me and countless others how to be yourself, even if it meant being someone else, and that if someone accused you of being weird the best thing to do was give them a big fuck you and get weirder. People don’t like a man wearing a dress? Fine. Let’s see if they like an androgynous rock alien who pretends to suck his guitarist’s dick on stage.
He was utterly unapologetic and utterly brilliant, and his music is among the best of the 20th century. And he’s dead.
My friend Peter had a thought which he shared with me. A white star burns out. A black star keeps going, and adding more to itself, forever. Even as it consumes it emits; exactly what Bowie did throughout his life, taking in art, changing it, making it his own, and projecting it out to the world. Being Ziggy drove him mad, being the Thin White Duke almost killed him. But as he died for real, he reached apotheosis and became something new, one final change to cap off a life full of them.
“I’m a Blackstar” he sighs, even as the coffin is lowered into the ground, and with that final sigh he is gone. But in his place he leaves something behind. There is no more David Bowie, but there is a Blackstar, one that goes on forever.
He was sorry for leaving us, and for only being able to give us everything he could.
It was enough.