When The Next Day was released in 2013, many felt that David Bowie was back. He had returned and we all rejoiced. Back were his nonsensical lyrics and whimsical ballads, his gender bending and peculiar music videos. However, for me, it wasn’t until I heard the lead single and namesake of his latest album, Blackstar, and its accompanying video that I really felt my Thin White Duke had returned. Then came that track’s stunning companion piece, “Lazarus” and its video with the same Blind Prophet character, and my hope was confirmed. All hail King Bowie! Sadly, we now know that this album will be his last and the video for “Lazarus” was his final goodbye; Blackstar is Bowie’s parting gift to us all, and a truly stunning gift it is.
Though Bowie was no stranger to jazz instrumentation, Blackstar is the first time where this influence has felt cohesive. This is largely in thanks to his stellar backing band and collaborators on the album, a quartet led by modern jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
This return to avant-garde Jazz brings to mind Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, both strongly influenced by Bowie’s work with pianist Mike Garson, his touring keyboardist during his Ziggy days, and a collaborator on both albums. “Dollar Days” has shimmering piano reminiscent of Garson’s work on tracks like Diamond Dog’s masterful suite “Sweet Thing“/”Candidate”/”Sweet Thing (Reprise).” Many consider Dogs to be a bit messy — a 1984 concept album with little polish. Blackstar is the refined dystopian album that Dogs never quite succeeded in being. It’s strange, experimental and incredibly dark, but with old age came a confidence that the young, swagger-filled post-Ziggy Bowie didn’t have. Even if you haven’t liked what Bowie had put out the last two (or three) decades, you can rest easy knowing that it’s all been leading up to this album, and it was entirely worth it. He had found himself again by doing and being something completely new and different.
Though not a concept album in the traditional sense, there are definite elements of a dystopian theme. The “Blackstar”/”Lazarus” suite talk of days of execution and feelings of desperation. “Girl Loves Me” contains lyrics in Nadsat, the slang vocabulary from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. The world described seems to exclusively contain loose, cruel women (“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)”), and there’s just an overall intense sense of foreboding. This all could be reinterpreted now, knowing that Bowie had been battling cancer at the time of the album’s recording.
The past few decades have felt as if Bowie had been fluctuating between both reminiscing about and trying to escape his past. With this album, he seems to have finally moved forward and done something new rather than dwelling on yesteryear. On the nearly 10-minute title track he says, “I’m a Blackstar/Not a Popstar.” Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but in the ’80s, it seemed as if he was desperate to leave everything he did in the ’70s behind in favor of being a full-fledged Pop Star — something that worked for a time, but eventually fizzled out. Bowie was more than adept at making pop hooks, but he just didn’t have the capability to fit within those confines. He was just too freaky, man.
It will likely take us all a long time to process the loss of such a great artist. I have loved David Bowie since the moment I heard “Space Oddity” when I was 15, and I can’t imagine a world without him. I’m sure it would be easy to go back and listen to Blackstar knowing what we know now about Bowie’s 18-month battle with cancer and his very intentional creation of the “Lazarus” video as a parting message to fans, and take a whole new look at the album. For now, I’m happy to just let it stand alone and be what it is: a truly artful and beautiful album.
We’ll miss you, Starman.