When I think back on David Bowie the artist, I think about him in the sense that he was always an artist, from start to end. Where many artists who start on a unique identity go on to eventually shed it over time as they age, becoming shells of their younger selves, Bowie added layers, never pulling back on experimentation due to the potential of alienating a misunderstanding public. The Next Day, his surprise 2013 return, may have been tame in comparison to his 1970s material, but it still had a considerable impact upon its release and within his discography
Think of another ‘legacy artist’ who can make such a claim as late in their career. Let’s face it, most musicians who record for decades reach a point when people stop checking for new material. The Stones, McCartney, Willie Nelson, even U2 can probably be added to the list. They occasionally release albums of original material. A few people check them out. Then those records collect dust while the old classics spin again.
The Next Day might have already become a dust collector while Heroes or Best of Bowie continue to be recurring favourites, but Blackstar could be a Bowie classic. It touches on familiar elements: space, the occult, gender, androgyny. It’s familiar in that it’s not really familiar. The 7-track album is mainly experimental with incorporated jazz elements throughout, apparently inspired by Kendrick Lamar‘s jazz-infused record To Pimp A Butterfly, according to producer Tony Visconti – and his own impending death.
The first sign of the album came upon the release of its haunting title track, Blackstar, back in November, accompanied by a video I originally called psychotically genius. The ten-minute song begins with cult-like chants until a calming presence takes over as the ominous drums give way to strings and a harp while Bowie repeats “I’m a blackstar.” It’s like the before and after of a ritualistic sacrifice.
The video for Lazarus features Bowie as the same character from Blackstar, this time in a hospital room with death looming. The song itself was recorded before his cancer became terminal, but the lyrics speak directly to his reflection on life immediately after his passing.
Whether introspective or otherwise, the album is representative of Bowie. It incorporates elements of A Clockwork Orange, one of his favourite books, in Girl Loves Me, and Dollar Days expresses his distain of celebrity-obsessed media while addressing his fans by touching on his absence from the public eye before acknowledging those who admire him. “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying, too/I’m dying, too.”
The current profile of Blackstar could be perceived as critically elevated because it was followed so closely by Bowie’s death, but the two events – his death and the release of this album – are intertwined. There’s no way around that. Bowie almost certainly planned it that way.
He knew his final days were near and he applied that to what would become his final work, knowing it would be his final work. He lived for and died with art as his focus. The man who took art and constantly meshed it with his own music, persona and being made his own death a required piece of performance art to accompany his album, thus making it complete.
2. ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore
4. Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)
5. Girl Loves Me
6. Dollar Days
7. I Can’t Give Everything Away