Written Jan. 11, 2016…
Avant-garde provocateur, glam rock messiah, plastic soul man, mainstream pop star, hard rock bandleader, actor, painter, producer. David Bowie was all of these things in his career and yet none of them. He was innovative, groundbreaking, pretentious, inscrutable, chameleonic, strange, mercurial, baffling, brilliant, a wizard and a true star. He was rock’s quick-change artist, unafraid to explore new vistas of sound and style the moment he grew bored with his current surroundings. He was always hard to pin down, always moving forward. The word genius gets thrown around far too often, but in the case of Bowie it was absolutely appropriate. The musical landscape of the past fifty years would have been a far different, far lesser place without the man born David Robert Jones in the south London district of Brixton on January 8, 1947.
I, along with millions of other Bowie fans, woke up this morning, though, with the tragic, shocking news that the Thin White Duke had passed in his sleep, after a long battle with cancer and heart problems. And so here we are, collectively grieving for a man that only a lucky few knew well, but all of us loved deeply. I would have liked to have been able to say that Blackstar (stylized as ★), an album he released only 3 short days ago (on his 69th birthday) was an exciting new direction for him instead of a final destination.
I was fortunate enough to listen to it a couple of times over the weekend, before hearing the tragic news, thinking that it was simply his latest album, rather than his last, so I can objectively say that it is a brilliant, forward-looking piece of work. But now I have no choice but to listen to it forevermore from a bittersweet vantage point, knowing there will be no follow-up, no more worlds to conquer – knowing that this was his final statement to the world. But what a statement it is.
The adventurous Blackstar is an amalgam of jazz, electronica, rock, and even a bit of pop and hip hop thrown in, but yet it’s none of those things. It’s Bowie at his experimental best, but yet it’s accessible enough as not to be off-putting. Working with electronics and a small jazz combo, the album starts off with its most challenging song, the ten-minute, two-part title track (which most resembles “Station to Station,” the title track to his 1976 cocaine psychosis masterwork, in structure if not in sound) and steadily moves closer to more normal song structures. It ends with the song “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which most resembles something from his 80s pop era – albeit shot through with effects and Donny McCaslin’s excellent sax playing. It ends the album, and his career, on a high note.
Two songs are remakes: “Sue (or in a Season of Crime),” which was released as a single in its previous, jazzier incarnation (taken from his 2014 compilation, Nothing Has Changed) and its B-side, “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” titled after John Ford’s seventeenth-century play that dealt with incest.
There are several references to mortality in the lyrics, but it may be too tempting to scrutinize every word, looking for clues predicting his death. Longtime producer Tony Visconti stated today that this album was David’s way of saying goodbye to his fans. It would be a shame, though, if this album was looked at as nothing more than the last will and testament of a dying man. It has far too much life and forward-looking motion for that. Still, certain lyrics jump out:
“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried…
I’m a blackstar… I’m a blackstar”
“Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”
Even if you choose to ignore the lyrics, though, there is much to admire in David’s singing and the music itself. David channels one of his oldest influences on the first half of the title track: Scott Walker, from his influential Nite Flights period, or perhaps even from some of his more recent, dissonant material. It also slightly resembles Elvis Costello’s 2013 album with The Roots (Wise Up Ghost) in its sound and malevolent atmosphere. This is an album for late-night listening, full of darkness, desolation and shadows. But it never gives into despair. At only seven songs, the album might have you wishing for more, but this is a perfect album just the way it is. Blackstar will surely make many “best of 2016” lists come year’s end.
Bowie never really fit into the rock ‘n’ roll world nor the pop world – he just existed in his own beautiful, strange orbit. He could make the weird seem normal and the normal seem weird. He made countless others feel that they could also be weird and it was perfectly okay.
I can’t even begin to state just how much of a loss to the music world Bowie’s passing truly is. But he went out at the top of his game, and how many artists can you say that about? Especially fifty years into their career. He left us with more brilliant music than we had any right to expect. Some artists have one or two great albums in them and then disappear. Bowie had an endless supply of them. He also had a few mediocre ones along the way. It was all part of his restless spirit though. He wasn’t afraid of falling flat on his face. Most of the time he soared high – as high as any artist ever has. It was a fifty year tightrope walk, and he went out in a blaze of glory. He was one of the greatest rock stars this planet has ever known. He will be forever missed, and we shall never see anyone like him again.
Goodbye Major Tom.