The year was 2015 and David Bowie, at the age of 68. was dying. Few outside of his family and close friends knew this, but he’d been diagnosed with cancer of the liver and the future wasn’t looking bright.
Bowie was as close to God-like status as one can be without being either a Beatle or Elvis. From his time has The Thin White Duke, to iconic tracks like “Space Oddity,” to his many concept albums and rock operas, most of which were written and performed in an array of strange characters, David had pushed the boundaries of rock music and music and general for his entire life and with 25 studio albums, five of them platinum in the US and nine platinum in the UK, he’s one of the most successful artists that ever lived.
On his 69th birthday, just two days before his death, Bowie released what is likely his darkest and most haunting artistic statement of his or any other career, his 25th LP, Blackstar. On it, Bowie deals in topics of death, mysticism, mortality, and the afterlife. The true artist he was, David Bowie had spent his final days writing and recording one last project, which he lived just long enough to see brought into the world. While the main thrust of this piece is to show you why you absolute must hear the record, it’s worth discussing why it hasn’t been as widely discussed as it should be.
The most obvious reason is that the record is far from accessible. Most of the instrumentation is made up a very dense and crushing form of Jazz and Bowie’s vocal melodies and lyrics are experimental to say the least. However, I’d say that there was another cause which weighed much heavier. Namely, Bowie’s death itself.
When a star of that magnitude passes away, fans often go back to classic releases to relive the golden days, and that caused many fans to ignore Blackstar. On top of that, the record itself is so dark and deals so heavily in death and mortality that it doesn’t allow listeners to escape to a time when Bowie was on top of the world again, but instead refuses to turn away from his death. All this being said, it’s long past time that Blackstar gets the respect it deserves.
Firstly, the record is instrumentally fascinating. Partnering with a litany of accomplished jazz artists with a flare for the experimental, Bowie created a project which is equal parts dense and dark. From the circling drums and staccato saxophones to the cacophonous backing vocals and the tasteful but jarring electronic elements, Blackstar rarely touches down on earth. Instead, it’s a orbits about, vaguely recognizable but never predictable.
This is, of course, before we touch on David’s performance itself which is simply breathtaking. His voice finds the perfect mix between power and sincerity and it’s generally our only tether to the real world, sonically. There are more than a few moments which could easily move a longtime fan to tears, even after multiple listens, either in his ability to honestly portray his own frailty or in the moments when everything comes together and just for one short moment, he’s back to his full glory.
The record’s best asset, without a doubt, is Bowie’s lyrics. There is just something indescribable about hearing one of the greatest artists that ever lived so unflinching facing his own demise. On Lazarus, Bowie details his own visualization of his walk into the afterlife beginning with the line, “look up here, I’m in heaven! I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” And, of course, on the opening, nine minute epic of a title track, he essentially writes a soundtrack to his own funeral.
Beyond all of this, the visuals involved with the record are stunning as well. The video for the title track is a psychedelic funeral for Bowie’s iconic Major Tom character from “Space Oddity” while the bizarre and at times frightening video for “Lazarus,” was packed with clues to his approaching demise long before his disease was known to the public.
Ultimately, the question is this: why should you listen to Blackstar? Why not remember Bowie as the almighty Ziggy Stardust and move on? There are a few answers to this. The first is that Bowie intended this record to be his swan song and it should be treated as such. He spent his final moments creating this work of art and it should be respected by fans for what it’s meant to be.
That being said, there’s an even more important reason to visit this album which stands beyond just David Bowie himself. The fact is, there’s never been an album like Blackstar and there may never be again. To hear one of our greatest, an icon, and a truly brilliant artist confront death in its most real and inescapable form and he could think only of one thing, his music.
Blackstar is brave not only for the superficial reasons of it’s wide pallet and bizarre structures, but it is brave in the truest sense of staring death itself in the eyes, staring it down, and using your final breath to sing about what you see.
David Bowie has been gone for three years now, and as he said so beautifully so many years ago, “the stars look very different today.”
AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB