This article was originally published on PLAYBACK:stl on January 17, 2016.
As Blackstar’s opening descending ambient notes herald what we now recognize as David Bowie’s final artistic statement, it’s easy to interpret every movement and every carefully crafted lyric through a veil of sadness. How could it be possible that this prism of a man who dispersed music into such a wild spectrum of vibrant color, unapologetic sexuality, and celebratory introspection, really be gone?
The album’s titular track has the narcotic and dizzying effect of holding hands with an angel, or more likely an alien, as a shadow choir of ghostly voices guides us on the fading journey of a complicated soul looking for meaning in the face of the great inevitable. An interesting thing happens around the four minute mark, though; the clouds part, and ethereal synths transform this dark requiem into an ode to hope and the very thing that may be the most important aspect of Bowie’s body of work. It’s the same, powerful message his words and music have been teaching us all along. Our unique and maddeningly human quirks, those very things that make us individuals, are what will ultimately make us resonate beyond our mortal selves and transcend our differences.
Produced by longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, Blackstar feels no need to feverishly cram a lifetime of emotions into its seven tracks. Instead, Bowie constructs an entirely new sonic landscape for us to explore, simultaneously crafting a near-perfect grace note to a creative life well lived. Backed by a New York jazz quartet led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, Blackstar’s greatest achievement is the alchemy that transpires between his experimentation and storytelling here. It succeeds in ways that albums like 1995’s Brian Eno-produced Outside may have struggled a bit in its obliqueness.
“Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” takes its title from a 17th century piece by playwright John Ford, with Ornette Coleman-esque trippy jazz sax soaring and diving over a hip hop beat. “Lazarus”—one of two songs, along with “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)”, represented here from Bowie’s off-Broadway show of the same name—begins with the breathtaking lyric “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.” While the haunting Johan Renck-directed video for the meditative track shows Bowie in a hospital bed and withdrawing into a dark closet, the track itself shines with a calm and confident optimism over a seductive bass and drum groove, as McCaslin’s white-knuckle sax riffing tangles with Bowie’s Fender guitar blasts.
The aforementioned “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” features LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy contributing percussion, and plays out its surrealistic romanticism over a musical bed that feels like Ziggy Stardust starring in an android-populated Matt Helm flick. My favorite song on the album, perhaps because its style is the way I’ll always remember Bowie best, is the odd and humorous “Girl Loves Me.” Made up almost entirely of crazy British slang, it contains the lyric that summarizes what many of us were thinking on Tuesday morning, after the haze of the previous day’s news. Where the fuck did Monday go, indeed.
If there is one song on Blackstar that signals a clear and direct farewell, it’s the beautifully melancholic “Dollar Days,” where we find a very human Bowie looking over his shoulder, recollecting his storied, chameleonic past, singing “Push their backs against the grain/And fool them all again and again.” Longtime fans will have a difficult time holding back the tears on sweetly heartbreaking lines like “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.” For the multimedia icon who took so much joy in vanishing behind the curtain only to reemerge as a freshly reinvented creature, it’s a struggle to come to terms with the doomed expectation, naive as it was, that he just might live forever. Upon repeated listening, the gravity of this track deepens, and is the closest thing we’ll ever have to getting a warm embrace from the man who sold the world.
Fittingly, the only time the album seems to call back to an older song is the final track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” From the steady as-a-heartbeat mid-tempo beat, to the unwavering hope in the vocal, the track echoes the 2002 Heathen number “A Better Future,” which could almost be considered its sister song. If the previous track “Dollar Days” is about looking back, “I Can’t Give…” is simply about coming to terms with the truth of our existence. It’s the thing we have in common with even the most glamourous and invincible of rock gods.
When I heard the news that he had passed away, I wrote on my Facebook page that the beautiful thing about loving an artist is that, when they die, we still have their incredible work to illuminate our lives. He bravely died as he lived: art in motion, sound and vision.
God bless David Bowie. | Jim Ousley