Heralded as the greatest comeback in the history of pop, David Bowie’s return to music in 2013 surprised the world. Three years later, David Bowie’s unexpected demise has left shock, grief, and devastation in its wake. For over thirty years, Bowie pushed musical boundaries and blurred the lines between gender and sexuality. As is the case with any great artist’s work, his was a reflection of his own life and views. Extraordinarily, Bowie has transformed death itself into a work of art from beyond the grave, as if the entire world has become part of a wondrous and devastating performance piece of grief and remembrance. His final studio album, Blackstar, is a meditation on mortality, fame, one’s legacy, and looking back on the past. It’s a musical memorial and the entire world has been invited by Bowie to listen, one last time, to something new.
After Bowie’s death, Tony Visconti, a long-time producer and close friend, revealed Blackstar is the singer’s “parting-gift to the world.” If one were to listen to the album before his demise, you’d be forgiven for pondering the album’s sombre, reflective tone and atmosphere. But the context surrounding this album is part of its art. Released on the 8th of January 2016, the album spent two days waiting to be truly understood — on the 10th it became an epitaph, its true form. Blackstar opens with its title track, where Bowie’s chant-like tone repeats ‘at the centre of it all’, as if calling out to the heavens in realisation of what life really means as a human staring into the face of death. The 9-minute track is a symbolic journey to the centre of the album’s core; its accompanying video is an exploration of fame after a star’s death — a star’s legacy. The video, which sees Bowie’s alter ego ‘Major Tom’, lying dead in a space-suit on a distant planet, is accompanied by a musical journey of fused genres: avant-jazz sections intertwined within a drum & bass, house-esque musical romp. And, after halfway through, we are blessed with a slow, bluesy middle-section. The music video is filled with biblical references: the jewel-studded skull of Major Tom is worshipped by women stood in a ceremonial circle, and three scarecrows fidget whilst attached to anchor poles – an image evocative of Jesus’ crucifixion. Throughout the track, Bowie’s electronically-static voice sings ‘I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar’ – a star waiting to die, eerily accepting his fate.
The album’s lyrics centre around a man coming to terms with his own mortality, and looking back on the past. This central lyrical motif is continued in ‘Lazarus’, the album’s short, dark masterpiece, in which Bowie sings helplessly ‘Look up here; I’m in heaven’, followed by a metallic crash of realisation in the form of an electric guitar. The song combines jazz and rock, and builds in an epic crescendo, underneath the singers immortalised words ‘I’ll be free, just like that blue bird’. The predominant fusion of jazz and rock throughout the album is, in itself, a self-homage to Bowie’s own musical roots — the saxophone being the first instrument he learned to play.
It’s undoubtedly one of the most experimental albums of his career, and beautifully, lyrically cryptic at times. In the acoustic ballad ‘Dollar Days’, he sings ‘I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again’, dying to defy all expectation and shock his audience. In the strange, electronically tinged ‘Girl Loves Me’, he questions passing time: ‘where the fuck did Monday go?’. The album’s romantically harsh third track, which takes its name from a tragedy written by dramatist John Ford, ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’, is an upbeat mix of melodic discords that cave under the squeals of a saxophone throughout its five-minute length. And the album’s final track, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, hears Bowie confess ‘Seeing more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes, this is all I ever meant’, before his final words ‘I can’t give everything away’ precedes a long-winded hum of synthesisers, halting drums and a dying electric guitar.
Blackstar grabs us by the heart and soul as well as the ears, and you can’t help but let it — it’s truly experimental and all the more mesmerizing for it. This is a seamless album that is meant to be listened to by a world in mourning for its artist. And to truly understand the depth and beauty of Blackstar is to keep in mind the Starman’s return to the stars.
(Featured image credit: taken from Amazon.)