Blackstar, the latest and final studio album from David Bowie, was released on January 8, on the singer’s 69th birthday.
Nobody (outside his family and a few colleagues – save industry rumours of his failing health) was prepared for his death a mere two days later – but then again, Bowie had never been one to do what was expected of him.
There’s seven songs on the album, similar in style to that of his 2013 release, ‘The Next Day’. There is a fundamental difference however. Whereas ‘The Next Day’ made us feel that at last, Bowie was back, everything was alright with the world – the King had returned from exile, ‘Blackstar’ conjures up a sense of urgency, of finality. Perhaps that’s just a retrospective thing. The benefit of hindsight maybe. But there’s definitely a line being drawn under things in this album – the King is dead – Bowie always intended this to be a parting gift for his fans, and in light of his death, we can now look at the clues he’s left for us.
Much has been made of the video for lead single, ‘Lazarus’. An evidently weak, failing Bowie, in bed, at times lifted off the sheets, is eerily bandaged up, with buttons for eyes – or are they screws? One look at the image and the first thing that comes to mind are the lyrics, ‘Screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo’ – is this what really happened to Ziggy Stardust? Did he actually end his days in what appears to be an old style asylum, tormented by his past, the things that have been set free from the closet?
He shows that things must be completed, he is urgently writing things down, knowing the end is nigh. The gruesome figure under his bed menaces, threatening. Bowie even while his eyes are bandaged is aware of what is happening, who is in the room with him. Is it death?
It’s been suggested that ‘Lazarus’ makes it clear that we should have prepared for the end. “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” “Oh I’l be free/Just like that bluebird”. Even the title, ‘Lazarus’, which of course, is also the name of his co-written (with Enda Walsh) musical, currently playing in New York; but we recollect that other Lazarus, from Bethany, whose resurrection by Jesus was in itself symbolic of Christ’s own return from the grave.
Bowie hasn’t at this point risen again, but his music will always live on. Once more, we’re given the impression that Bowie is in control of his end. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now”. His illness, now known to have been liver cancer, was terminal; Bowie knew the end was near, but as with most of his personal life, he kept that private. He hid his scars: his drama was his and his alone. In his death however, we all now know.
What of the rest of the album? The video for the title track, ‘Blackstar’, opens on a long dead astronaut – Is it Major Tom? Again the singer has his eyes covered, buttoned and bandaged. Screwed down. Hidden. He’s not giving anything away. Major Tom is not as we know him. He is now a jewel-encrusted skeleton, venerated by a strange woman with a cat tail…naturally…on a distant planet.
The middle part of the song reminds us musically in part of ‘Absolute Beginners’: a lot of the album seems to borrow from Bowie’s back catalogue. It’s a nice touch. We are all absolute beginners at everything we set out to do – Bowie included.
Who are the writhing scarecrows? Why are they venerating Major Tom? What’s the deal with the solitary candle? In the end it doesn’t matter. It’s the lyrics we need to look at – again, there’s a foreshadowing of Bowie’s own death: “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried”. This brings to mind ‘American Pie’ – always humble about his contribution, is Bowie saying that we need not fear, this is not the day the music died – there will be an heir?
What of the rest of the album? ‘Tis A Pity She Was a Whore’, takes its title from a play of the same name, by 17th century playwright, John Forde. It’s an energetic, vibrant, jazz-fuelled song, shocking with the opening line, “Man, she punched me like a dude”, before going into archaic speech. It’s hard, it’s fast, it’s saxophone and beating drums.
‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’, released in 2014 (‘Whore’ was the B side to the track), takes us back, once again as with ‘Blackstar’, to ‘A Space Oddity’. We have more soaring sax, horns and Bowie’s incredible vocals – known for being a one-take marvel – are perfect, and extraordinary.
‘Girl Loves Me’ is all nonsense words, “Libbilubbing litso-fitso” “Split a ded from his deng deng”, punctuated by the refrain, “Where the fuck did Monday go?”. One imagines Bowie using his old cut up method of songwriting for this one, but instead of simply rearranging words and sentences, he’s rearranged the very letters, added and subtracted. To which we say, “Viddy viddy at the cheena”: it all makes sense in the song, it fits the music.
‘Dollar Days’ is possibly our favourite on the album: the line, “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me/It’s nothing to see” – another death foreshadowing; this is backed up with, “I’m dying to/Push their backs against the grain/and fool them all again and again” – much as this is Bowie’s parting gift, the man is clearly fighting death right to the end. He’ll go when he wants to go, when the time is right for him.
The last song, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, is the ultimate tease. Musically from the very start it reminds us of ‘Never Let Me Down’, the title track from Bowie’s 1987 album. Maybe that’s what he’s suggesting here – even though he’s not able to let us all in on the secret – at least before he’s died – he’ll never let us down – even in death he’ll always be there for us – the King is dead: long live the King.
If you only buy this album to give Bowie a posthumous number 1, do so. But listen to it. Cherish it. Analyse it. David Bowie was a man known for his wordplay, for his cryptic clues, for his love of words and how they sounded. ‘Blackstar’ is right up there with his finest work, and contains all the elements of what we know and love best from his back catalogue, while at the same time giving us something new to chew on.
Vale David. You’ve done a fine job.