David Bowie assumed many forms in his 50-year career. Aside from his plethora of alter egos and characters, he was at times the poster child for androgyny, a teenage heartthrob with an acoustic guitar, and an early innovator in heavy metal. The big takeaway from the thousands of eulogies following Bowie’s untimely death on January 10th is that what fans found most alluring and even inspiring about Bowie was his unabashed penchant for the absurd. For lack of a better word, Bowie was a freak. By embracing himself he allowed the misfits of the world to accept their own individuality. As a cultural touchstone, he led the way for transgressive genre hoppers—Kate Bush, Prince, Björk, and Kanye West to name a few—to stand proudly upon what makes them weird, especially when they are focal points of the mainstream.
When Blackstar, David Bowie’s 25th, and as it turns out, final, album came out last week, critics and fans were quick to piece together clues as to what the album strives to address. After all, Blackstar, is among the most experimental of his albums, so of course there must be some sort of crazy new alter ego he’s concocted, right? And indeed, the album’s lyrics deal with many familiar Bowie tropes: the simultaneous exile and worship of messiah-like figures, literary references, clever wordplay, etc. Many of the lyrics allude to the past in a way that implies that he could have been revisiting Major Tom akin to his 1980 track “Ashes to Ashes.” The album is reflective in a way that simultaneously hints at old personas and the creation of new ones. But Bowie’s passing just two days after the album’s release revealed what is now painfully obvious: Blackstar is from the perspective of Bowie himself, grasping for the little life he had left.
On a superficial level, Blackstar bears most similarities to his 1976 album Station to Station, an album Bowie notoriously claimed to have no recollection of recording due to his then subsistence of cocaine, milk, and peppers. Perhaps him paying homage to the album was a way for him to reclaim memories he no longer had. The sequencing is identical; both albums start with gargantuan 10 minute long, two-part title tracks followed by six songs of more standard lengths. Much like Station to Station, Blackstar’s opening track is the most outright bombastic, with the following songs at first glance being more conventional, only for the experimental elements to reveal themselves over time. Both of the albums are centered in Bowie’s warped perspective of an American pastiche; Station to Station added a trippiness to the blue-eyed soul he ventured in on the Young Americans album and while a listener would be hard pressed to call Blackstar a jazz album per se, jazz is at the album’s core. The backing band, led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, turns the album into a jam, with solos and improvisations that pay no mind to how poppy or avant-garde the material gets, both of which come in heavy doses.
Bowie hasn’t walked this line of head-nodding melodies and leftfield instrumentation since he worked with such experimental luminaries as Brian Eno and Robert Fripp on the trilogy of albums he recorded in Berlin—Low, Heroes, and Lodger. Blackstar is also an undeniably modern album. Collaborating with longtime producer Tony Visconti once again, all of the instrumentation is given space to breathe and bounce around in a natural yet digital manner. The drums alternate between live and electronic, carrying a hard-hitting precision with them—feeling like a cross between Aphex Twin and Mogwai. Kendrick Lamar, Death Grips, and Boards of Canada were cited as influences on the album’s sound, and while there’s no straight through-line between the album and its purported influences, they are apparent its free-jazz flow, aggression, and electronic textures.
In the final two tracks of Blackstar, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Bowie peels back the energy that fuels the rest of the album and delivers ballads that stand up to his biggest hits. Here, Bowie is at his most vulnerable, eschewing the anger and pleading from earlier in the album in order to portray someone who is accepting their death but still isn’t ready for it. In his review of “Dollar Days” for Pitchfork, published on the release date of the album, Mike Powell says of the lyric “I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again,” that “anyone interested in Bowie would know better than to take such an honest appraisal at face value.” Upon the album’s release, many fans and critics harbored such sentiment. Now, as Bowie’s death sinks in, it’s become apparent that there’s really no way to look at a lyric of such caliber as anything but an honest appraisal at face value – one gets a sense that Bowie truly loved being a creative force, and in his final moments wasn’t ready to give it all away. In fact, in his final weeks, Bowie even wrote and recorded five demos and discussed collaborating with Brian Eno again.
Like its creator, Blackstar is an enigma. As an amalgamation of all the Bowies in the past, it creates an infinite amount of new personas for fans to ponder, and in doing so, it becomes a heartbreakingly personal work. In the second half of the song “Blackstar,” Bowie gleefully examines everything he claims not to be (a popstar, a film star, etc.) in between confident croons of “I’m a Blackstar.” Though the chameleon-like nature of Bowie’s stardom cannot be confined by a singular title, a Blackstar he is indeed: a void that can never be refilled, but will stay with us forever.
Image by Jimmy King