The Blackstar

This album is as elusive as it is angular. But then isn’t Bowie always like that? Never has popular music witnessed such a relentlessly innovative and shape-shifting creator as David Bowie. He was ahead of the curve throughout, even when not at the top of his fame. So it should come as no surprise that this album is full of surprises.

From the opening moments, the aim seems to rub our noses in our mortality. Not surprising, when Bowie was himself dying of cancer. He knew his time was running out, but he couldn’t have known how quickly (or that he’d die two days after his 69th birthday and album’s release).

Two songs were previously released (Sue and Tis a Pity She’s a Whore) – and Lazarus was written for an off-Broadway musical Bowie created, picking up on his Man Who Fell To Earth. That said, the album does feel like a whole – there is great musical ingenuity, and each track has its individual flavour. But together, they take us an extremely personal, and intensely emotional, journey to the grave… and beyond.

Bowie - Blackstar tracklist.png
There are scores of analyses of the lyrics’ various images and allusions out there, so I won’t reinvent wheels. You can follow them up yourself.
  1. The Villa of Ormen and other hints (Guardian)
  2. Allusions to Bowie’s hero Elvis and his own Black Star (Telegraph)
  3. The significance of the cover art (NME)
  4. The occult influences of Blackstar
  5. The beautiful meaninglessness of Blackstar (New Yorker)

What I do want to do is pick up a few threads that occurred to me as I’ve listened, and discussed with a few friends more knowledgeable than I on all matters Bowie (especially @StephenHance1)

Musical anxiety

Many have noted the range of musical styles which this album draws together. The influence of jazz is perhaps the most noticeable, with sax and guitar solos which soar over the rest of the band; but there is also a driving but tight rhythm section which gives it hardness, even aggression at times. At times there are sounds which seem industrial or digital – at any rate, they’re dehumanised and mechanical, but somehow the human players manage to resist their relentless cycles. This is obvious from the start in Tis a pity she’s a whore.

david-bowie-last-photoshoot-pictures-jimmy-king-2.jpgSometimes the arrangement and melody are eerie and unsettling – as with the opening of Blackstar – only to be carried off into some ethereal (narcotic-induced) space, as takes place in Blackstar around the words ‘Something happened on the day he died‘. Lazarus feels more melancholic and nostalgic musically, dense brass arrangements and an unchanging rhythm section. Sue (Or in a season of Crime) has the urgency of a cinematic chase sequence, but the vocal line floats above it in anxiety and tension, until eventually drowned out by the frenetic and cacophonous arrangement.

The last two tracks feel like a return to gentler times, musically speaking. Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything are recognisably Bowie-like derivative – nor derivative, for sure, they might have fit in with his stuff in the 80s or 90s perhaps – especially with the Steve Wonder style harmonica solo and the return of the sax. This is not to suggest that they are without anxiety, however. There is still something looking and dark – for that reason they seem the most privately poignant tracks in the set.

But above all, each song is compelling and interesting – for all their apparent musical simplicity there is always something to keep one listening.

Looking beyond the inevitable

None of the tracks is particularly explicit, though there are suggestions and hints throughout. I don’t feel I’ve really got to the bottom of it all yet. Perhaps we’re not meant to. Some of it is just too weird (as in Girl Loves Me, which is full of what is apparently 70s gay club slang combined with the language of a Clockwork Orange), though the sense of confusion and anxiety such oddities convey is significant in itself.
But death and mortality are clearly the thematic cord binding it together. Here are some of the more obvious lines – it is hard not to see autobiography here, sung by a man dying of cancer and familiar with clinics, tests and pain.
There is a hodge-podge of images – drawn from his religious experimentation, his career, his experiences with drugs, success, promiscuity and the rest. There is no doubt that Bowie had an occult/Aleister Crowley phase, and the album and opening track’s title is surely an allusion to that. The five-pointed star and the scenes in the video of trance-like dancing all point to that. And this fits with the something that happened on the day he died as his spirit seems to escape his body. It also explains the blasphemous hubris of claiming to be ‘the great I am,’ which is, of course, the Old Testament name of God. But despite the interlude in the middle, there’s no peace here. It is fearful, nervous, pained.
Bowie Blackstar signing out.jpgBut two tracks later we are confronted by the clearly biblical imagery of Lazarus (Jesus’s friend whom he raised from the tomb). He is speaking to us from beyond the grave – very unsettling because of the timing of the album’s release. That is the weirdest thing about modern technology – the dead still live on before our eyes and ears. We look up and see him (in the video). But in the second stanza, he’s deeply concerned about the danger he faces. This revives the role of Thomas Jerome Newton, the immortal character in The Man Who Fell To Earth. So it’s partly him, partly Bowie himself – but it’s incongruous that an immortal is called Lazarus (because he would die once more, after Jesus had raised him). This is a future life after life which is uncertain – he may be free but he might not. It could be full of menace and threats.
Across the other songs, there are regrets, confusions (where the f*** did Monday go), longing (I can’t give everything away), even a brave face (does it really mean nothing to him that he’ll never see the English evergreens again?). The frenetic urgency of Sue suggests a race, the futile attempt to outrun death itself.

The Gift of Confrontation

But the more I’ve explored and listened, the more I’ve sensed we should be grateful. As @StephenHance1 said in our conversation a week ago, here is popular music of the first order, creatively forcing us to confront reality, rather than avoid it with platitudes and fantasies (which is the stuff of most pop music). Great art must always expose and reveal what we are blind or deaf to – and Blackstar does this in spades. It’s impossible to pin down what Bowie really believed from this album – perhaps he didn’t even know. But he wasn’t afraid to face it, in the only way he knew how – on stage. And he did so with tremendous vulnerability.
That is what makes this so generous.
We’ll come to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker in the next post.
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