★ Blackstar

I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar)

I added it to my  library on the day it was released, which coincided with David Bowie’s 69th birthday.  It was already causing a stir. A very strange and surreal music video for the title song had preceded release of the album. And the last few Bowie albums, The Last Day (2013), Reality (2003) and Heathen (2002), had been something of resurgence for his career. Critics and fans were paying attention. I recall initially the talk being more about the New York jazz musicians he had employed on the album — well that and the video. But the significance of Blackstar would not be realized until two days later, when Bowie died from liver cancer.  Ponder that for a moment. David Bowie released his final album on his 69th birthday, and then died two days later.

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David Bowie 1947-2016

We learned that Bowie had known of his impending death but had chosen to keep it secret from the public. Even the musicians who worked with him on the album had not known just how ill Bowie was. Only after his death did we get a clue as to what Blackstar is about. The initially impenetrable lyrics became merely cryptic. To me, the lyrics above now seem like a conversation — or maybe an argument is a better description — between Bowie, the backup voice in parenthesis, and “the Great I Am.” Is Bowie questioning his death? Not ready to go home? Too big a star to die? And is “boo” merely a rhyming device? Or is Bowie, even if a bit jokingly, scared of a drug-free afterlife?

It’s not just the title song that reveals a David Bowie coming to terms with his own mortality.  The obviously Biblical  “Lazarus” asks us to direct our attention elsewhere:

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

Dollar Days,” which is as close as this record comes to a jazz ballad, has what can be taken as the most direct acknowledgment of Bowie’s fate. The chorus as printed in the liner notes is:

I’m dying to
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to
It’s all gone wrong but on and on
The bitter nerve ends never end
I’m falling down
Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you
I’m trying to
I’m dying to

But listening to the album without benefit of printed lyrics, the phrase, “I’m dying to,” could be heard as, “I’m dying too.” On “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the album’s final track, Bowie sounds as if he’s trying to sum up the entirety of his life and career.  Or maybe he’s just saying goodbye:

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent

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There is much more to Blackstar than Bowie’s introspection. There are numerous cultural references. One example: The seemingly nonsensical lyrics in the song “Girl Loves Me” are a fictional language called Nadsat from the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange. The album packaging is very deliberate. It has been suggested that perhaps the star fragments at the bottom of the cover art have some hidden meaning — or that they simply spell “Bowie.” And the music surprises, as Bowie’s music always has, drawing from many influences: rock, electronica, and jazz. Most notably, it introduces a new audience to saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Tim Lefebvre and their fellow musicians. Bowie remains restless to the end, mining a new musical vein even on his last album.

Blackstar has received many accolades.  In 2016, it ranked as the #1 album in a number of critic polls. It was nominated for “Best Rock Album” at the Billboard Music Awards. It won “Best Alternative Music Album,” “Best Engineered Album, non-Classical” and “Best Recording Package” at the Grammys that year. The title song won Grammys for “Best Rock Song” and “Best Rock Performance” that year as well. At the 2017 Brit Awards, the album won “British Album of the Year.”

Blackstar is Bowie’s final statement, his parting gift to fans, and one he created while staring death in the face. It’s a remarkable testament to the seriousness  with which he took his craft, his calling. I’m sure there is much more that awaits discovery on the album. It will take many listens and many years to fully appreciate Blackstar. Such is the nature of art. Such is the nature of Bowie.


The music video

Directed by Johan Renck, the music video for “Blackstar” begins with images of a dead astronaut. (Is this the fate of Major Tom?) The sky is dominated by a total eclipse of the sun. The astronaut is discovered by a woman with a tail.  Inside his spacesuit lies a jewel-encrusted skull.  The girl takes the skull back to a village where a circle of women seem to perform some sort of ritual involving the skull.

The choreography is truly bizarre. In particular, there’s an attic scene where the dancers seem to shake in place. Renck revealed in a CBC Music interview that Bowie had the idea for how this dance should look. Bowie showed Renck an old Popeye the Sailor cartoon. The cartoon used an animation technique, common in the day, where several frames of hand-drawn artwork would be looped to give life to inactive characters in a scene.  It was a labor saving device, a compromise between completely animating everything and animating only the characters within scope at the moment. If you’re watching the main action, the entire scene seems fully animated. But if you focus on the background detail, as Bowie obviously did, the inactive characters appear to be wobbling. The mimicking of this effect by live actors as a dance in the video is quite unnerving.  It’s also notable that the dance of the female in the attic scene alludes to Bowie’s “Fashion”  music video.

A space oddity, even by Bowie standards, the video won “Best Art Direction” at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards.  Anyway, without further ado …

 


Read more:

David Bowie Blackstar (Ryan Dombal, Pitchfork) — written before Bowie’s death
Tim Lefebvre on Bowie from Rolling Stone
David Bowie: The Musicians Behind Blackstar,  Music playlist

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