Amy Gwinnet lends her ear to review David Bowie’s final studio album.
This was supposed to be an album review. Listening to the new David Bowie album just days ago, I jotted down a few notes. How odd it was, how unfriendly to radio. How exciting and far-reaching. How cryptic. Overnight, this review became an obituary, and Blackstar became a different album. Now, mortality seems to lurk behind every song. It’s difficult not to strain an ear at every line, listening out for the clues that say this is an album made by a man who knew he was dying.
So, David Bowie has died, after an 18 month battle with cancer. After 69 years and 27 studio albums. His parting gift to us came in the form of Blackstar. However, this album is much more than a farewell, much like Bowie’s other seminal works. Blackstar is an album with relevance beyond its finality, as difficult as it may be to see this in the wake of his death. It is rich in far-reaching references ranging from Jacobean drama, to the radical art movement of Vorticism, and Anthony Burgess’ fictional language of Nadsat – to name a few. It is a melange of influences and concepts woven together by strange and often beguiling soundscapes – a far cry from the catchy nature of his earlier works.
The release of Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) preceded the album by almost a year and offers and alternative interpretation of what Blackstar could have been. The song itself is an incredible piece, a testament to his legacy of innovation – why not expand into a cinematic jazz odyssey at the age of sixty-nine? ‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore similarly stands out, laced with Bowie’s mischievous attitude and his knack for interesting wordplay. The track itself is more ‘rock’ than the rest on the album – a carefully measured action to purposefully stray away from aural cohesion in favour of a more nuanced and compelling experience.
Lazarus is the song bound to draw the most attention as the last single released by Bowie before his death. Amidst the overwhelming media furore, the song holds its own as a wonderfully complex and compelling farewell from a man aware of his own mortality. It opens with the line ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’ – an almost unbearably poignant sentence to pen with hindsight. It’s a beautiful song, with a spine-tingling key change that feels like some great bid for freedom, with Bowie singing ‘You know I’ll be free’ and, the most compelling line of all, ‘Ain’t that just like me’, because isn’t it just? Bowie has always demonstrated an enviable artistic freedom but that is not to say this is an easy album. There is still the foreboding, throbbing unease of Girl Loves Me, and the twist of bitterness on Dollar Days (‘I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain’). The album ends on the incredibly moving I Can’t Give Everything Away, an elegiac song built on a tender vocal from Bowie, but it’s not such a simple goodbye. There’s real pain to it. ‘I know something is very wrong’, he sings. This is not an album of simple acceptance of death. It’s an album mired in the process of trying to accept it.
The problem, now, is not accepting that he’s dead. The problem is accepting that he was mortal in the first place. ‘I’m a Blackstar’, he sings on the title track, “I’m not a pop star”. And that’s the problem. David Bowie isn’t a pop star. He’s a sexy alien from Mars; he’s the Thin White Duke running on peppers and cocaine, he’s not one thing. He’s not anything. He’s not a man. It’s as if perhaps, the reclusive Bowie of recent years is just another re-imagination, one of his many guises. Lazarus is an ode to the Bowie we knew, marking the end of his continuous reinvention. At this final stage, he closed the chapter on his own terms. He died as he lived; as an artist. He’s not a popstar. He’s a Blackstar. Ain’t that just like him.