David Bowie makes his death a spectacle in ‘Blackstar’

By Will Doolittle

(Sonia Golemme/Flickr)
(Sonia Golemme/Flickr)

Much like Heath Ledger’s final role in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” it will be hard to ever discuss David Bowie’s “Blackstar” without also discussing his death. Released on the singer’s 69th birthday, two days before the end of his 18-month battle with cancer, “Blackstar” did not need the posthumous confirmation of intent from collaborators to feel like a goodbye record.

Like Ledger’s hypnotizing performance as the Joker, Bowie’s swansong is not a sentimental or cloying affair. In fact, it might be his most twisted, grotesque work ever– a final assertion that even in death, his career is a lesson in the power of performance art.

In 2013, Bowie ended his 10-year studio hiatus with solid comeback “The Next Day,” but that record’s nondescript rock leanings and self-reflexivity–right up to its Heroes”-harkening cover– inseparably tethered it to a reputation locked decades away. Here, the only sense of yearning for the Bowies of past years seems to come on the song “Dollar Days,” where he laments “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain / and fool them all again and again.”

That’s “Blackstar’s” charm: it’s arguably the first time he’s harkened back to the exploratory style of his 1970s peak and returned with something bold and innovative in its own regard. Whether through its masterful composition, layered writing, or sheer lack of inhibition, “Blackstar” goes twice the distance of “The Next Day” with half as many songs.

It’s impressive how cohesive “Blackstar” sounds despite the disparate origins of its songs. Two tracks originally appeared in alternate forms for a 2014 retrospective “Nothing Has Changed.” Another is the eponymous song from Bowie’s Off-Broadway musical “Lazarus,” yet “Blackstar” does not play like a compilation thanks to a tight backing band and finessed instrumentation that dabbles in both experimental jazz and art rock. The saxophone, Bowie’s first instrument, plays a particularly versatile role in uniting the songs, shifting from a menacing drawl, to a playful buzz, to a somber moan on the first three tracks.

Bowie leans into his age as well, his voice shaking and convulsing like the choreographed movements from the album’s music videos. It’s perhaps most noticeable on the rumbling, up-tempo “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” as he seems to half-whistle the title phrase before devolving into wheezy shouts as the song grinds to a close. This decayed, creaky quality ultimately works to Bowie’s advantage, especially on “Blackstar’s” title track. “I’m not a gangster, I’m not a pornstar, I’m a blackstar,” he declares, a ghastly vocoder accompanying his rasp. The iconoclastic figure established on the track isn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for Bowie, but the song’s satanic imagery and ominous keyboard drone create a far more sinister character than past personas like Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke.

Last November, producer Tony Visconti cited hip-hop messiah Kendrick Lamar and unhinged punk-rap trio Death Grips as key influences to “Blackstar.” While echoes of Lamar’s recent masterpiece “To Pimp a Butterfly” thread through the album’s political allusions and jazz instrumentation, the latter group’s influence is most obvious on “Girl Loves Me,” a strained, thunderous number with clattering drums and hazy strings. The lyrics are mostly sung in a fictional language from Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange,” but one can catch glimpses of tension with Bowie’s repetitions of “where the fuck did Monday go?” It’s the reworked version of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” however, that captures the project’s most streamlined post-rock performance, with an unflinching guitar part looping around spiraling percussion as Bowie atonally attempts to make Sue listen.

In the days since the “Lazarus” music video made “Blackstar’s” subject matter too obvious, many poured over the album’s lyrics to find further hints of Bowie’s impending fate. Singing “Look up here, I’m in heaven” on a hospital bed is admittedly the most direct reveal. While the rest of “Blackstar” has a typical degree of artistic distancing (references to rural Norwegian villages, retellings of 17th century Ford plays), the most easily interpretable moments appear in “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the final song of the album and of Bowie’s career.

“I know something is very wrong, the pulse returns the prodigal sons” he quivers before the song bursts into a sweeping chorus. It’s an honorable self-critique from a singer whose personal life has always felt distanced from his career. Although the song’s minor chord send-off may feel like a bittersweet goodbye, “Blackstar” as a whole is the best farewell we could have asked for– a final wink to the listener. He’s fooled us all again.

William Doolittle can be reached at [email protected]