January 2016 will be remembered as the month when the initial euphoria about a new David Bowie album, titled Blackstar, suddenly changed into the mourning of one of the most significant artists of pop music from the past 50 years. The revelations about his medical condition after his 2004 heart attack does not only put his last album Blackstar in a different light, but also his 2013 album ‘The Next Day’ in retrospect comes across as an album of an artist who realized that his earthly existence was coming to an end.
One can not help to listen back to his final two albums from that perspective: here was not a man at work that wanted to breathe new life into his carreer, but rather an artist who was in a hurry to make his final artistic statements. Maybe not coincidental, the title of Blackstar may refer to a song of one of Bowie’s own big influences, Elvis Presley:
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
The song Blackstar and the accompanying video are full of references to the subject of death. The video seems to be situated on a different planet, where a group of women put on a burial ritual for a deceased and stranded astronaut (Major Tom from Space Oddity?). This scene is varied with Bowie performing with some dancers a zombie like ritual, with Bowie’s head wrapped in a bandage. Actually Blackstar is a multi themed song: after the initial dark jazzy atmosphere the songs changes into a more ballad like intermezzo.
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)
And towards the end of the song the initial opening theme returns. The Blackstar album is characterized as a ‘jazz’ album. It is true that jazz musicians formed Bowie’s backing band for this albumand therefor naturally contributed to a jazzy atmosphere of the album. Especially the saxophone has a big role in all the songs, but the music is still strongly vehement within the pop and rock idiom.
Unconsciously one is also inclined to search for other lyrical clues in retrospect about Bowie’s phase of life. The beautiful song Dollar Days is probably the most outspoken in that respect, with Bowie proclaiming I’m dying to(o). Towards the end of the song his voice seems to dissolve in atmosphere, as the intro of the more conventional song I Can’t Give Everything Away starts.
The other songs of the 42 minute album are also a truly wonderful final contribution to Bowie’s music legacy as an artist. ‘Tis Is A Pity She Was a Whore‘ (referencing by the way a 17th century play) is a rather chaotic song that will grow on the listener with every listening. This is probably the song with the most prominent jazz influences. It somehow reminded me of John Lennon’s 1972 album Sometime in New York that also contains a lot of these free format songs where the saxophone plays a prominent part. The single Lazarus was the other song from the album to be accompanied by a video and shows Bowie with the same bandage around his head on what appears to his death bed in a hospital. The lyrics are about a man speaking from heaven and reflects back on his earthly existence.
AFter the initial release of the album I wrote on Twitter: From Space Oddity to Blackstar…what an amazing journey! Little did I know by then that Blackstar would be the ultimate and final chapter of Bowie’s legacy as an artist. Blackstar is a worthful and beautiful statement for an artist that experienced the final phase of his earthly existence that may serve as an introduction for a newer generation to his outstanding oeuvre he created over the past 5 decades.
== Den Haag, 31th January 2016==