Listening to “Blackstar” a day after the death of 69-year-old legendary rock musician David Bowie makes the record all the more moving and unsettling.
Each of the many diverse music eras of Bowie’s career resembles a different archetype from Bowie’s arsenal of shapeshifting characters and a different sound, but each encompasses the same strange voice and free-form lyrics found deep within Bowie’s soul. The 1970s brought us Hunky Dory and the androgynous, lightning-striped Ziggy Stardust; the 80s gave us The Thin White Duke; the 90s turned Bowie on to electronic synthpop; the 2000s were pretty much different every year. What would become his 27th and final studio record,”Blackstar” represents Bowie’s last days on planet Earth and, despite the album’s meek seven tracks and 41-minute length, every single second of it is pure, unfiltered David Bowie. With “Blackstar,” Bowie gives us an unforgettable final act that’s bound to not only reinforce the artist’s gift of creating breathtaking songs, but also to cement Bowie’s legacy forever in the music world.
As if Bowie’s sudden death from a lengthy battle with liver cancer wasn’t already a shock to the universe, “Blackstar” reminds us vividly of death, existentialism, and the afterlife. But instead of using a bleak, cynical tone to underscore the dread that precedes death, Bowie accepts it with open arms and embraces all the life he’s got left. We hear this prominently on the multifaceted title track opener, which spans almost 10 minutes. In the first half, Bowie sings with a guttural voice over a spooky mix of saxophone, drums, and synths. But the real definitive moment comes halfway through, when Bowie, stricken with anxiety, ruminates over his mortality in the third person (“Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside”), with angelic strings playing in the background. It’s magical, odd, and chilling — all elements of David Bowie’s unmatched genius.
“Blackstar” churns along quite well after that. The rock-heavy “‘Tis a Pity She was a Whore” — my favorite track off the album — shakes and stirs with more saxophone, a showstopping drum riff, and a “Clockwork Orange” sense of humor. “Lazarus” acts as the album’s centerpiece, with a more explicit nod towards Bowie’s impending death (“Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”). As eerie as it may sound, “Lazarus” is a song that transcends all of pop music, combining soft and harsh sounding instruments with allusions to the Bible and the fragility of the human condition. Bowie knows his time is coming to an end and he’s using every bit of emotional willpower to express that.
But even with its stark undertones, “Blackstar” isn’t an entirely gloomy record. The groovy “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” sounds like something out of a psychedelic Bond film; the vulgar “Girl Loves Me” is actually quite funny, especially when Bowie asks with a cracked squeal, “Where the fuck did Monday go?!” (I wonder that too, Bowie. I wonder that too.) But just when the fun gets started, Bowie returns to poignance with “Dollar Days,” a beautifully sung, beautifully played ballad that’s filled with moments of both bliss and sadness. As Bowie trails off with “I’m trying to/I’m dying to,” the final track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” comes at last. But like many Bowie fans, the song bittersweetly acknowledges that it’s not just the end of the record, but the end of David Bowie.
But even when “I Can’t Give Everything Away” comes to a finish, there is no “end” for David Bowie. He’s still there in spirit, living with the music he created. As emphasized by the album’s producers, “Blackstar” is Bowie’s swan song, and what better way to finish an admirable career of epic live performances, eccentric personas, and 27 records than with an album that embodies the life, energy, and weird brilliance of David Bowie.