A week ago I thought I was writing a review of the excellent new David Bowie album Blackstar, which you should pick up right now if you haven’t already. It was going to focus on resurrection, the death rumor that circulated around the release of the last Bowie album The Next Day, and the King Kong stones required to spring back from that to drop a single called “Lazarus,” after the dead man Jesus shockingly brings back to life in the Gospel of John. Joke’s on us. Bowie wins again. Waking up in the middle of the night, though, gutted, to news of David Bowie’s passing, I’d learn that Blackstar was a statement all right, just not the one I’d expected.
“His death was no different from his life - a work of art,” longtime producer Tony Visconti explained on Facebook overnight. “He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.” After sharing favorites from the legend’s intimidating discography with friends before bed I decided to give the new album another spin and was shaken by the plainness of its intent. In sound and vision, Blackstar is literally a performance of death, a genius showman’s public walk through the one final point at which all lives intersect. It’s brash and brave, but also comforting; if he’s at peace with how his story ends, it gives us the strength to do the same.
The best points of entry into the world of Blackstar are the two beguilingly obtuse music videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus.” In the former, a woman on a foreign planet finds the space-wrecked corpse of an astronaut (Starman?) and extracts a jewel-encrusted skull that has bizarre effects on the locals, causing the remainder of the skeleton to drift off into a black sun. “Something happened on the day he died,” Bowie sings. “Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried.” Blackstar sax player Donny McCaslin says he was told the song is about ISIS, but it’s hard not to also see it as the artist challenging a successor to rise up and continue his fight when he’s gone.
“Lazarus” pares down the intergalactic theatrics, focusing almost solely on Bowie as he writhes on what looks to be a hospice bed, dancing in a manner shot to look a little like levitation. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” it opens. Later: “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird, oh, ain’t that just like me?” The song doubles as title track to an off-Broadway musical starring Dexter’s Michael C. Hall as an older and sadder Thomas Newton, the Earthbound extraterrestrial star of Bowie’s 1976 cult classic The Man Who Fell to Earth. Perhaps where the New Testament’s Lazarus story fixates on a body freed from the confines of death, Bowie’s take, on stage and in song, inverts properties, freeing the spirit from the shackles of its mortal tether instead.
That’s bleak, but the magic of Blackstar is its balance of these dense musings on mortality with cooling levity and wry literary allusion. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” both escape the matter at hand to adapt the grisly Renaissance play ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, and “Girl Loves Me” is a cavalier hip-hop track sung largely in the brogue from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. But when the latter glides back to English at the end of verse one, Bowie snaps “I’m sitting in the chestnut tree / Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?” The Chestnut Tree Cafe is the thought criminal meeting ground where Nineteen Eighty-Four protagonist Winston Smith sits at novel’s end, calmly anticipating a bullet in the head. (Bowie listed the Orwell classic among his hundred favorite books for the Art Gallery of Toronto edition of the traveling David Bowie is exhibit in 2013.) This chilling peace is the beating heart of Blackstar; as Bowie sings on “Lazarus,” “I’ve got nothing left to lose / I’m so high it makes my brain whirl.” He walked through death’s door as boldly as he crashed through social mores and gender norms.
In Blackstar’s last two songs, Bowie attempts to pass this calm on to his audience, and we get as direct a farewell from an artist to his fans as anyone is ever likely to. “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” both evoke the man’s wish to keep fighting and the recognition that he can’t: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see.” The Thin White Duke’s final act draws to a close on a ripping guitar solo referencing Robert Fripp’s ghostly “‘Heroes’” lick, a fitting final note from a hero whose greatest gift was teaching us to be heroes of our own.
This week David Bowie molted again, only it wasn’t just clothes or a sound he shed. He left his body behind and became the idea it housed all along, the sense that you can be any solitary thing your heart demands, even if it changes from one day to the next, and that if the world doesn’t get it at first, they’ll have to if you make enough noise. Blackstar advances the message a step further: Not even death can stop you if you live big enough and love hard enough. David Bowie left us with a lifetime of moments and music, and though he’s gone in physical form, his voice will last forever.