David Bowie // Blackstar
by Maggie Danna on January 20, 2016
Posted in: Album Review, Jazz, Pop, Rock
David Bowie’s Blackstar is intricate but desolate, both optimistic and rife with the inevitability of mortality. Sonically, jazz and prog rock electronica prevail. With ample use of saxophone, an instrument he learned to play as a young teenager, Bowie returns to the musical beginnings of his youth. With this final album he also reminds us once more of the outer space mystique with which we have come to associate him.
“Blackstar”, the album’s nearly 10-minute long lead single, premiered last November and is up there among the top tracks of Bowie’s musical career. It starts out bleak and haunting with jazzy saxophone, bopping synths, and skittering electronic shimmers. Staccato and jittery at first, the tone changes dramatically towards the middle, becoming soulful in a way reminiscent of Young Americans. In this segment Bowie declares all the stars he isn’t; he sings, “I’m not a popstar”, “I’m not a wandering star”, “I’m not a gangster”, “I’m not a filmstar”, and “I’m not a pornstar”. He certainly was both a popstar and a filmstar; however, these labels did not define him since he was so much more. David Bowie is simply his own unique entity and cannot be defined. I believe this is what he meant when he declares he is none of these but a blackstar.
“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”
“Blackstar” is quite possibly a relinquishing of his position as a courageous innovator and a call for another to replace him and continue to break new ground in music and culture in the future.
“’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”, named after John Ford’s 1633 incestuous tragedy, and touching upon violence, gender, and WWI, is energetically jazzy with strong build ups of tension and release. Frantic saxophone squeals over a chorus of ohs. In “Girl Loves Me”, Bowie incorporates Nadsat slang from A Clockwork Orange, contributing to the ominous and dystopian vibes felt throughout the album. Bowie’s never-satiated drive to create and change is expressed in “Dollar Days”. “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you,” he sings, possibly referring to his family, friends, and fans. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the smooth, soaring and cinematic finale. It is Bowie’s somewhat reluctant acceptance of his own limitations and mortality and is the most calm and relaxed track of the album, without the eeriness of previous tracks. Though melancholic, it seems to suggest that everything will be fine in the end.
Though I did not notice the significance at first, Blackstar’s numerous hints at approaching death are now extremely apparent, especially when taking the music videos for “Lazarus” and “Blackstar” into consideration. “Lazarus”, which is ambient and haunting with its catchy melody and lightly reverbed vocals, contains such lines as “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” and “Oh, I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird”. At the end of the music video, Bowie wears an outfit reminiscent of his Ziggy Stardust period and walks backwards into a closet, shutting the door and symbolizing the end of an era. In the Bible, Jesus resurrected Lazarus after he died of illness. It is possible that Bowie, who was suffering from terminal liver cancer prior to passing away on January 10, was hoping for a miraculous recovery just as Lazarus had, as he supposedly was planning to release even more songs after Blackstar. Or the name Lazarus could refer to the many rebirths David Bowie has experienced throughout his lifetime; he changed his name, created numerous stage personas, overcame addiction, and explored a vast multitude of musical styles over his dozens of albums.
While much of the album explicitly points at death, I didn’t pay that much attention at first since I did not think Bowie’s death was such an immediate possibility. Additionally, the inevitability of death and the constantly changing nature of life have been themes in much of his music over the decades; just think of “Five Years”, the tale of his Major Tom character, “Time”, and many others. Blackstar however is certainly the most morbid as he now knew he might truly be approaching death and crafted the album accordingly.
Bowie reviews and contemplates his incredible fame with lines such as “Everyone knows me now” in “Lazarus” and the worship of the jeweled astronaut skull in the “Blackstar” music video. The skull could represent either Bowie himself or Major Tom, who Bowie created in his 1969 hit “Space Oddity”. Sometimes we idolize celebrities to the extent that it’s easy to forget they are mortal beings. To me, David Bowie felt like someone who would be around forever; he had been creating music for half a century and had an other worldly air about him. Just as the skull was worshiped in the music video for “Blackstar”, Bowie will continue to be revered in our world. He has played an extremely important role in the creation of modern music and culture as one of the most influential musicians of the past several generations, and as a contributor to other arts including film and fashion. On top of that, he has also helped popularize androgyny and contributed to some chipping away of gender norms.
David Bowie’s ability to produce so much new material while sick and to use his illness as inspiration rather than cause for resignation is immensely impressive. In addition to completing this final album, he also helped create the play “Lazarus” with Enda Walsh, which deals with mortality as well through the lens of an extraterrestrial on Earth hoping for immortality. Though immortality of this kind is unattainable, David Bowie will remain with us through the tremendous impact his music has made on so many aspects of our lives. ★
Maggie Danna is WRMC’s leading David Bowie scholar. She is about to leave Vermont to study abroad in Spain this spring, but she usually hosts a show called Weasel Starship on WRMC.
Blackstar was released January 8th on Columbia/RCA/ISO. Stream it here: