Albums of 2016 (#7): David Bowie – Blackstar
On 8 January, David Bowie’s 69th birthday, his 25th studio album Blackstar was released. Seemingly a cause for double celebration, certainly none of us were to know that the album would also be his last
David Bowie’s death on 10 January framed Blackstar in a new and incredibly poignant context. According to co-producer and longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, Bowie had known since November 2015 that his cancer was terminal. Bowie had reportedly already finished Blackstar by then, but nothing in his vast output has ever been accidental, and Blackstar is an explicitly played-out performance of the man squaring off with his own mortality.
On the monastic, uneasy ten-minute opener Blackstar, Bowie intones 'Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside' in a ghostly hush. On the prophetically-titled Lazarus he implores 'Look up here, I’m in heaven' amidst world-weary brass, before in spiritual contemplation he envisions that 'Just like that bluebird / Now, ain't that just like me? / Oh, I'll be free.'
With the woozy, soaring ballad Dollar Days, there’s acceptance, and defiance too: 'If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me.' Bowie and Visconti reportedly recut the vocals, adding a haunting effect throughout the record using an effect called ADT (automatic double-tracking). The recording process was apparently conducted in secret at New York studio The Magic Shop, with only a handful of friends and family – including Visconti – aware of the extent of the singer’s declining health.
The trippy, jazz-infused Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) and sax driven ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore were re-recorded for Blackstar, including new saxophone parts played on the latter by Donny McCaslin. This exploratory aesthetic permeates Blackstar; where familiar Mark Ronson-esque riffs powered surprise ‘comeback’ album The Next Day. In 2013 it was his first new album in nearly a decade, and throughout The Next Day, with its phoenix-like energy and glam-rock revivalism, there’s a sense of defiance. Conversely, Blackstar’s skittering drumbeats and jarring freeform narratives serve to add a further layer of discomfort.
Despite the pervasive unease, Bowie’s unique, multifaceted persona is everpresent. Blackstar picks sneeringly over the concept of legacy and fame – 'You're the flash in the pan (I'm not a marvelstar) / I'm the great I am (I'm a blackstar)' – while the industrial, sinister Girl Loves Me sees him grappling with a belligerent self who asks the reccurring question, 'Where the fuck did Monday go?' over a layer of percussion provided by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy.
By album closer I Can’t Give Everything Away, Bowie lays bare his metaphysical musings. Amid mournful harmonica flourishes and brisk trip-hop beats, he begins: 'I know something is very wrong,' before resolving in a gentle refrain, 'I can’t give everything / Away.' With 'skull designs upon my shoes,' Bowie condenses himself into a final farewell, 'Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That's the message that I sent.'
In a year full of truly heart-wrenching news, the first cut is the deepest, and Bowie’s departure still stings. Take comfort in the fact that although he may be gone, even in death Bowie continues to surprise us. Since its release fans have discovered design secrets in the artwork to Blackstar, and the album sleeve designer Jonathan Barbook recently teased that the vinyl contains further details that have yet to be uncovered. As Tony Visconti best summed it up in an online post following Bowie’s death, “his death was no different from his life – a work of art.”