David Bowie – Blackstar
ISO Records, 2016
Armed with the knowledge of David Bowie’s tragic demise, you might expect from this most timely of albums a modest, sentimental farewell, in the manner of Johnny Cash’s American series. Alternatively, perhaps you could expect a titanic blowoff; a seismic, furious middle-finger to the world, akin to Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu. Instead, true to the pattern of this unparalleled man’s career, what we actually get is the epitome of control. A refined, finely-sculpted puzzle of biblical, allegorical and satanic allusions, all hinting at his struggle for life, but handled with such grace and poetry that for the three days in which it existed before the shocking news broke, nobody managed to put the pieces together.
“I’ve got nothing left to lose,” he sings on ‘Lazarus’, and where for most of us that would mean throwing in the towel, for Bowie it meant it was time to focus on making his best album in decades. The man whose entire public life had been a tightly controlled work of art saw one final opportunity to push the boundaries. Whilst it may be true that the morbid timing of its release has only served to accentuate the poignancy of Blackstar, this album is incomplete without Bowie’s death. Nearly all of its seven tracks make reference to it, as does its cover, which consists of a black sleeve with an absent star.
‘Lazarus’ deals with the elephant in the room the most directly: its opening lines of “Look up here I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” now read like a eulogy delivered from beyond the grave. “Ain’t that just like me,” he continues, forever the master of the self-reference, as evidenced in tracks over the years from ‘Ziggy Stardust’ to ‘Ashes to Ashes’ to ‘Where Are We Now’. Even the harmonica part in the introduction of ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ calls back to ‘A New Career in a New Town’ from 1977’s Low.
Musically, Blackstar is one of the most dramatic and successful changes in direction of his career. Recruiting Donny McCaslin’s jazz band, whom he had seen and been impressed with in concert in New York, he resisted the temptation to saturate the album with maudlin defeat. The crunky guitar and skittering drum patterns of ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ stick to McCaslin’s improvisational jazz style most closely. And ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ is the one track that brings a sense of joyous abandon, with its playful keys, frenzied, squalling saxophone and Bowie’s raspy ‘whooo’s in the background.
Only once does he allow his frustration to bleed into the album: ‘Girl Loves Me’, on which he spurts out nonsensical lyrics – a lot of which are in the Nadsat language used in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – over sharp, angry percussion, provided in part by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. The horrific coincidence of the line, “Where the fuck did Monday go,” was not lost on legions of grief-stricken Bowie fans on January 11.
Perhaps it is ‘Dollar Days’ that most perfectly captures the conflict of emotions that surround Blackstar. Opening with the sound of pages being turned – it’s easy to conjure Bowie flicking through a journal of memories or a photo album – the track is warm, but pained. He appears to find solace in his uncertainty about what follows death (“If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me”), and the repeated refrain of “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain/And fool them again and again” has a dizzying multiplicity of meanings. The saxophones and guitars are warmer and more embracing than they are elsewhere, and Bowie winds down by repeating “I’m dying to/I’m trying to”. It is a remarkable song.
It is not amongst his most accessible records, but now that we have some small understanding of the incalculable personal significance that this recording process must have held for David Bowie, Blackstar must surely rank amongst his very best achievements.