A confession: I’ve never been a David Bowie fan. That’s not, however, due to dislike, but because I’ve never really given his full oeuvre the time it deserves. In the wake of his death this week, that’s my own personal tragedy (and something that will surely be rectified). Yet even a non-fan can appreciate the impact Bowie had on the industry. Here was a glam-rocker with a punk disregard for boundaries, whose androgynous sexuality seemed as fiery as his flaming hair, whose penchant for artistry, concepts and alter-egos have become the foundation for so many other artists of recent memory.
It’s also not hard to see the importance and poignancy of ‘Blackstar’, Bowie’s final album released on his 69th birthday just days before his untimely death. It’s a haunting image to imagine the late artist writing this album knowing that death was marching ever nearer, but ‘Blackstar’ is without question a knowing farewell, fuelled by deathly and celestial imagery.
“I know something is very wrong” begins closing track I Can’t Give Everything Away, a beautiful track that seems to sum up the torment of an artist with so much more to give but no time to do it, instilled in the song’s very title. Opener Blackstar, by contrast, takes a darker view seemingly inspired by Islamic State: “on the day of execution, only women kneel and smile”. Yet even this is cause for reflection, as Bowie repeats “I’m a blackstar…not a popstar” like a mantra. More so, the track contemplates what we leave behind, as he sings “something happened on the day he died…somebody else took his place”, perhaps even a passing of the torch to the next generation of artists.
Bowie’s thoughts reach beyond the grave, too. Lazarus is the most potent example of this, it’s opening lines: “Look up here, I’m in heaven…Everybody knows me now”. It’s almost enlightening that Bowie predicted the future so palpably across the album’s seven tracks, though as he finishes on Lazarus, “I’ll be free”. We know that now. Lyrically, ‘Blackstar’ may be as poetically obtuse as ever, but its sentiment is anything but ambiguous, making these final lyrics perhaps the most explicit he ever sang. The video for Lazarus, too, must be mentioned here for its visceral visuals.
And musically, ‘Blackstar’ only fulfills expectations in that it defies them with an album that’s wonderfully creative and unafraid of innovation. The title track, for instance, is inspired by the unlikely figure of Kendrick Lamar through its sense of experimentation, its modern beats and squelchy synth bass contrasting with Bowie’s chant-like vocal. There’s jazz there too in the sense of extended improvisation, with a jazz quartet involved in the album’s recording. From there, the album moves through the jazz-tinged rock of ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore; the mournful saxophone of Lazarus; the urgent guitar riffs of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime); the downbeat menace of Girl Love Me and its eerie calls of “where the fuck did Monday go?”; and the more traditional ballad Dollar Days. I Can’t Give Everything Away, eventually ends the album on a positive note with its warm strings, soprano saxophone calls and Bowie’s delicate, quivering vocal that – in retrospect especially – cuts through to the soul.
Yet whilst Bowie may have sought to distance this album from his past material, it still keenly represents and celebrates his spirit. Listening now, it’s as if Bowie sings from the grave – as profound and powerful in death as he was in life.
Listen: Blackstar is available now.
* I Can’t Give Everything Away