“He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life— a work of Art.” These were the words of longtime producer and friend of Bowie, Tony Visconti, consummately and touchingly encapsulating the value of Blackstar and Bowie’s ethos, which will extend far beyond his own life. Ever unique, surely only Bowie could engineer such a feat.
Whilst people are incredibly fond of describing Bowie as a “chameleon”, I don’t think the metaphor is quite the right fit: whilst a chameleon changes colour to blend with its background, Bowie forged changes in the world around him— he didn’t merely adapt to trends, he created them. He strived, at his best, to create the world he wanted to see and the sounds that would inhabit it. The background of the music world itself changed with him. Blackstar is as striking and original as anything else he has made, and while the album’s influences are apparent— most notably in its free-form jazz stylings (Bowie and Visconti were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar when making the album)— it is an expansive, indefinable, yet succinct masterpiece which brings new reward with every listen.
Each song retains its own robust and distinct identity despite being filled with departures and constantly evolving musical styles. Listening to the album is like opening a series of chinese boxes that beguile and surprise. It would be easy for a song as long as the 10-minute titular track to stagnate or to evolve beyond recognition. Rather, it’s an effortless concoction of minimalist electro, strange syncopated drumming, jazz, rock, and other odd, wonderful, ineffable things—yet never loses its shape. In this sense, ‘Blackstar’ is a microcosmic version of the album as a whole.
Before its cryptic resonances revealed themselves, Blackstar was a stellar listen. But never has one’s conception of an album ever been so transformed in such a short space of time as on that unreal Monday morning. “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Indeed, Mr Bowie. Its macabre intelligence is eerie and enthralling. Here we have an artist who must grapple with the disparity between his mortality and the immortality of his legendary persona, resulting in a record which lyrically is both intimate and alienating. As elusive as ever, we’ll never pin Bowie down, however much he feels like our familiar hero: he tells us in closing track “I can’t give everything away.” The subject matter is extraordinary: a man who is well aware of his legacy, and with the impending threat of dissolving into a memory, contemplates and forecasts how he will be remembered. How many of us (me included) took comfort in imaginings of the otherworldly artist returning to whatever cosmic dimension he originated from, and he was one step ahead: a skeleton in orbit and Major Tom’s jewel-encrusted skull were already present in the the surreal video for Blackstar. It’s worth mentioning that he’s also King of the music video; his use of visual language in ‘Lazarus’ is particularly compelling, presenting us with the tangible anxiety that the time to release his pent-up creative energies is running out. Sonically, ‘Lazarus’ packs one hell of an emotive punch; being both mournful and exhilarating— intoxicating stuff.
Despite the seemingly prophetic death references, Blackstar is definitely not pervaded by a singular message: many of his lyrics remain tantalisingly, bafflingly abstract, particularly on ‘Girl Loves Me’. Releasing his final album at 69, it seemed like Bowie had a fresh surge of creativity: from his still-fertile imagination sprung forth a work still leaps ahead of his contemporaries. Though the record is perfect and well-rounded in itself, with the knowledge that Bowie had planned a follow-up, we’re left to wonder, at only seven tracks, could Blackstar be just a fragment? Perhaps there are spectral songs soon to materialise: if anyone can manage a post-mortem album release, it’s surely David Bowie.By Sophie Brear