To my shame, I must confess that I wasn’t able to bring myself to listen to Blackstar until preparing for this week’s Audio Rewind. All year long I kept waiting for the perfect moment to finally experience Bowie‘s parting gift; to relish in the last Bowie album that we on this earth would ever receive. The moment never came, though, and I think it didn’t come because I didn’t want it to; listening meant letting go. Or, perhaps, I was prescient and knew I’d need something to look forward to amidst 2016’s ceaseless onslaught of shit. Whatever the case, I finally listened to it, and I am happy to announce that I am of the same opinion as Nerdist music editor, Matt Grosinger, who placed Blackstar atop his Best of 2016 list.
The arrival of Blackstar, Bowie’s twenty-fifth and final studio LP, coincided with his 69th birthday, and it preceded his death by just two days. Considering the proximity of these events, many suggested that the record’s morbid lyrics served as the musician’s farewell; the sequence seemed premeditated, acutely aware of impending death. Recent news partially undermines that notion, though. The new documentary, David Bowie: The Last Five Years, which debuted on BBC this past weekend, revealed that Bowie found out his cancer was terminal just three months before his death. In Blackstar, then, perhaps Bowie was simply exploring the idea of his own death—cancer of any kind will do that, after all—rather than confronting it as a foregone reality.
“People are so desperate for Blackstar to be this parting gift that Bowie made for the world when he knew he was dying but I think it’s simplistic to think that,” said Francis Whatley, who directed both the documentary and Bowie’s Off-Broadway musical, Lazarus. “There is more ambiguity there than people want to acknowledge. I don’t think he knew he was going to die.” Much of the creative energy poured into his final full-length, then, must have been laced with hope, and that makes his death all the sadder.
According to Johan Renck, the director of Bowie’s “Lazarus” video, the musician found out that he was going to die during the video’s filming. The fugal epic is told from the perspective of a man in heaven, and the foreboding, accompanying visual places the musician in a hospital bed, blindfolded, fitfully dancing in gaunt relief… There’s no need to make the linkage between singer and song any more explicit than that.
In retrospect, the death of David Bowie seems a portent to what would ultimately manifest as 2016. The premature deaths of many more of our beloved artists. Gratuitous political upheaval. But the record itself served as a bright spot amidst the agonizing din. It was a gift that kept on giving, too. The cover art transforms when exposed to the sun, for instance, and there are reportedly still surprises yet to be found.
And, of course, there is the music itself, which will live on in perpetuity. In typical fashion, Bowie drew inspiration from a broad mélange of artists, both contemporary and well-worn. The saxophone, Starman’s first instrument, played a prominent role throughout the album. His love for the sax even served as impetus for recruiting the then-little-known, Donny McCaslin-led jazz combo to be the album’s backing band. IDM duo, Boards of Canada, the abrasive hip-hop group, Death Grips, and Kendrick Lamar‘s brilliant To Pimp A Butterfly were also all noted as influences.
With the help of producer Tony Visconti, Bowie managed to weave these influences into a sound that’s both logical and evocative of his oeuvre at large. Bowie is inimitable when it comes to identifying a musical zeitgeist, inserting himself, and creating something that is both relevant and unassailably his own.
The best example of this mastery is in Blackstar‘s ten-minute title track. Bowie seemingly invokes all of the tools from his songwriting arsenal on this piece, from the drum ‘n’ bass style percussion (reminiscent of the spacey, pell-mell rhythms on Earthling) to the stark yet seamless textural changes (see: “Space Oddity,” the Eno albums vs. the rest of his canon, “Let’s Dance” in a listening session crowded with Bowie’s art rock), he explored it all and mixed and matched at will. From the jazzy low end, “Blackstar” progresses through an instrumental acid-house section and a saxophone solo before finally landing in a low-tempo blues passage. Astoundingly, these transitions never feel stilted or awkward. You could go as far as to say that the song feels like it could have only been done one way: this way. And that’s the mark of his genius.
Most poignant in the song, though, are the words that immediately follow the switch to blues pace. “Something happened on the day he died,” croons Bowie. “Spirit rose and meter stepped aside / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar.” Again, there is no need to make the presage to Bowie’s real life any more obvious than it already is.
Even with the just-arriving music from Lazarus, it’s Blackstar that will forever be Bowie’s swan song—whether it was intended or not. It might seem natural to yell blasphemy at the notion that anyone could ever step in and take Bowie’s place in our stratosphere, and of course no one will ever replace David Bowie, but we should eagerly await the day when someone worthy can step up, take the reins, and justly declare themselves a fellow blackstar. The world will be a better place for it, as it is for having been home to Ziggy Stardust for 69 years.
Image: RCA Records