"Bowie was Bowie. We shouldn't compare him to other things; we should compare other things to him."
In the wake of David Bowie's passing, Christopher H James listens to Blackstar in a new light.
Stop all the clocks, silence the pianos, pack up the moon, extinguish the sun and indulge yourself one last time in the collective flood of grief on social media. A great light has gone out and we must somehow find our way through life without it.
A lot has happened since David Bowie's final album Blackstar was released last week, on 8 Jan. Following his unexpected passing, revelations as to Blackstar's genesis have come from long-time Bowie producer Tony Visconti, as he explained how this last statement was a "parting gift", and that Bowie's "death was no different from his life — a work of art. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it."
"It's a fearless soul who looks on their own death as an opportunity to try a new direction, especially as he discloses so intimately his thoughts and feelings."
The disclosure that Bowie's cancer ordeal endured for 18 months casts new light not only on Blackstar, but on its predecessor The Next Day. Its bizarre but unforgettable cover, which reproduced the mugshot from Bowie's classic 1977 album Heroes minus the face, now suggests that Bowie was well aware that his physical form may soon be erased. Likewise, the description of an exodus on the lead promotional track Where Are We Now over the Bösebrücke bridge — a border crossing between East and West Germany — in Bowie's former home of Berlin, together with its sorrowful opening, is now not hard to imagine as an allusion for another kind of crossing, from this world to the next.
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Blackstar and its promotional videos have been even more explicit in their message, particularly Lazarus, which opens with the line, "Look up here, I'm in heaven," and reveals Bowie writhing around on what might be his death bed. It's not the first time Bowie has explored sensitive personal themes through his music. Songs such as The Bewlay Brothers and Jump They Say were built from the tragic schizophrenia of his half-brother, while on the cosmonaut anthem Space Oddity, Bowie wrapped up his only feelings of isolation in grand space age metaphors. It's also not the first time he's reflected on what lies beyond the eternal void, as his 1971 song Quicksand advised, "Don't deceive with belief, knowledge comes with death's release". It's a fearless soul who looks on their own death as an opportunity to try a new direction, especially as he discloses so intimately his thoughts and feelings as he does on Lazarus and the elegiac, reluctant-to-go I Can't Give Everything Away. But Bowie's axiom that "it's a lot more fun progressing than looking back" may make a morbid kind of sense here.
Equally fearless is Blackstar's startling jazz-influenced compositions. With the exception of the free-as-a-bird saxophone fluttering and rangy fret-work on I Can't Give Everything Away, it's a mostly restrained backing, with low atmospheric groans and tense drum work. The band is at their most expressive on the mysterious title track, whose mystical vagaries have already started a rumour mill of Satanist, Gnosticism and astrological theories.
Over the years, many labels have been applied to Bowie in a forlorn attempt to reduce his vast talent into a simple formula: "musical chameleon", "pop's Picasso" etc, etc, etc. But Bowie was Bowie. We shouldn't compare him to other things; we should compare other things to him. "Demonstrating a fathomless ability to express creativity across a breathtaking range of art forms, while courageously innovating and contradicting expectations"? That's doing a "Bowie". With that in mind, what's perhaps most shocking when listening to Blackstar is the inevitable realisation that despite this recent surge of inspiration, there will be no more new David Bowie music. It's like turning the page of a book four fifths of the way through, only to discover that the rest of the pages are blank.
Bowie belongs to the ages now. So too does Blackstar.