Reading an artist’s life and particularly his death into his work is usually a mug’s game, the stuff of conspiracy theory and antithetical to art. With his final album Blackstar, however, the man born David Jones and reborn (again and again) as David Bowie has made it damned hard for us to resist.
Recorded with a murderer’s row of jazz musicians in early 2015, Blackstar was released Friday, on Bowie’s birthday, two days before the news Sunday night of his death from cancer. The illness was kept secret until its course was run. This was in perfect line with the pristine, mostly unsentimental and entirely British control Bowie always exerted over his projections into the world. Not for Bowie the kind of farewell concert or media tour that Americans such as Warren Zevon or, more recently, Glen Campbell have taken when facing terminal illness.
No, the Thin White Duke appointed others (often his co-producer of many decades, Tony Visconti) to handle the interviews. He delegated Michael C. Hall to embody him in the theater piece Lazarus, which includes some of this music. As Bowie sings on one of the two elegiac songs that close the album, “Dollar Days,” “I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain/ And fool them all again and again.” On the final track he insists, “I can’t give it all away,” with both regret and recalcitrance: I haven’t time to give you everything I have to give, he seems to be saying, but also, you can’t expect me to reveal all my secrets.
Mask, mime, and misdirection were fundamental to Bowie’s art, and he exited, as ever, with the finest legerdemain: Blackstar fell like a velvet cloth, and when it lifted, he was gone.
So when I hear the album now, it’s with a stereo effect of before in the left ear and after in the right. I think back to the lost world of last weekend, listening to it on repeat on walks and bus rides, absorbed by its spiraling density and energy. The pull was in Donny McCaslin’s sax and most of all in Mark Guiliana’s drums, which often felt like the lead instrument, determining where the songs would head next.
That’s a rare effect on a Bowie album, reminding me most of the part of the legendary Berlin Trilogy that gets the least love, 1979’s Lodger, as well as his 1990s explorations of jungle and other club music. It also reflects a hip-hop influence, given Bowie’s acknowledgment of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as an inspiration.
Bowie’s vocals here sounded so much more focused and less fragile to me than on 2013’s The Next Day. While mortality was certainly still a presence, my early impression was that Blackstar was much less morbid and haunted. It felt almost as compelling and lively as he was in his prime, entirely like himself and like nothing he’d done before, which is the most entirely-like-himself thing David Bowie could do.
But then came the news, and Visconti’s description of the album as the Starman’s “parting gift” to us all, and the record itself threatened to be eclipsed by its role as last will and testament. Listening again, there are some songs where that seems deliberate, and others where it’s reductive, a slur against the legacy of one of pop’s least literal-minded songwriters.
Consider the feral violence of “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (or in a Season of Crime),” rerecorded versions of both sides of a 2014 single. Bowie is making complicated connections between 17th-century playwright John Ford’s drama and sordid battlefront morality in the First World War, between the lineage of stories of English corruption and the disillusionment at the origin of modernism, with a side in unsettling gender play and jarring anachronism. (“Man, she punched me like a dude.”)
Then, in “Girl Loves Me,” there is the mix of Clockwork Orange’s “Nadsat” dialect with Polari (gay London slang from the era of the closet), which ends up as a kind of body double for contemporary rap and dancehall lingo. These are celebrations of cultural spaces and intellectual experiments Bowie always loved, but that does not make them funerary songs.
Even with the lovely “Lazarus,” with its necromantic title and its opening line, “Look at me, I’m in heaven,” it’s worth remembering that it was composed for the stage show. So it may figuratively be about himself, but it is first of all his vision of the declining years of Thomas Jerome Newton, his alien character from Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Lest we forget that Bowie always wanted us to know that our best self is usually someone else.
Still, there are those two final songs, in which the swirling prog-jazz slows to a gentle rocking and a more direct address. They seem to include both his kiss-off to music as commerce (“those oligarchs with foaming mouths phone now and again”) and a soul kiss for his fans—“don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you.” He lets us see him suffer, as he never was afraid to do: “I’m trying to,” he repeats in “Dollar Days,” and “I’m dying, too.”
And, saving the first for last, there is the scene setter, the title track, “Blackstar.” Here Bowie seems to me to be locating his place in the firmament. It begins with a ceremonial-sounding, Eastern-inflected chant about “the center of it all” and later moves into a minor-key funk refrain in which he invokes the myriad possible faces and modes of fame and transcendence: “I’m a blackstar, I’m not a film star … I’m not a porn star … I’m not a white star … I’m not a wandering star … I’m not a gangstar.”
Before Bowie died, I wondered if, along with the obvious reference to his long history of spacey sci-fi motifs, “Blackstar” was meditating on his relationship, as a rock musician, to black music of all kinds. Those links are beautifully traced this week by the great Greg Tate, who calls Bowie “that rarity—a white rock artist whose appropriations of black kulcha never felt like a rip-off but more like a sharing of radical and bumptious ideations between like-minded freaks.”
Among its many connotations, for instance, Black Star is the rap duo of Talib Kweli and Mos Def, with whom Bowie shared a rich, frank conversation about the downsides of fashion and fame for Complex in 2003. And the crucified scarecrows in the “Blackstar” video also put me in mind of Michael Jackson (who of course played the Scarecrow in The Wiz), an extreme instance of black stardom as both plenitude and pain. And then there was the thought of Kendrick Lamar himself, and the struggles he depicts on Butterfly.
Yet there’s also a transitional section between the two kinds of chant in the song. Here, Bowie’s singing becomes more lyrical and melodic, as he unleashes a more torch-song–like vocal tone. And another (less scrupulous) master appropriator comes to mind when Bowie sings, “Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place …”
Bowie shared his birthday (and thus Blackstar’s release date) with Elvis Presley, a fact that he admitted he imbued with mystic significance when he was younger. The two never knew each other, but Bowie copped Elvis’ moves onstage, and copied his jumpsuits for Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. His Aladdin Sane lightning-bolt makeup also echoed Presley’s well-known “taking care of business” logo. Most important, after Elvis’ pelvis bumped off one set of postwar sexual taboos, Bowie transported rock sexuality to a plane far out from Graceland.
It turns out that there is an Elvis Presley song called “Black Star.” It’s a cowboy-styled number from a forgotten early-1960s Hollywood western called Flaming Star. (Black Star had been one of the movie’s working titles.) Its opening lines? “Every man has a black star/ A black star over his shoulder/ And when a man sees his black star/ He knows his time, his time has come.”
It’s hard to credit this as a coincidence. Not from Bowie, who seemed to have seen, heard, read, and remembered everything (except perhaps a lot of his nights in the mid-’70s). And so, as gauche as it can seem to seek them, sometimes there are hidden messages. In this case, it’s the Queen Bitch delivering a deathbed lip-smack to the King, across the universe of pop-and-beyond—and complementarily, no doubt, to whomever might rise next to usurp Bowie’s worldly berth.
That’s the thing about Blackstar, which posthumously might (incredibly) become Bowie’s first-ever No. 1 album in North America: Parting gift it may be, but don’t mistake it for a dark, inert monument. Instead, at the center (or, if you will, the crotch) of David Bowie’s last labyrinth, he left us one more crystal ball.