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There’s never been an album quite like David Bowie’s Blackstar in rock & roll history. Plenty of rock heroes have addressed their mortality in song, as on Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, or Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What, or every Leonard Cohen album since, oh, 1985. And plenty of rock heroes have recorded vivid music shortly before dying: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, or Joy Division’s Closer, or Janis Joplin’s Pearl. But the former three are still alive, the latter three died young, and none has a story like Blackstar’s. Bowie gets diagnosed with liver cancer a year and a half ago, keeps the news private, records an album, releases it this January as the sequel to 2013’s The Next Day, and passes away two days later, whereupon Bowie fans all around the world realize the album was a parting gift. The gesture alone was impossibly generous. That Blackstar also happens to be his best album in a very, very long time seems too good to be true, too much to ask for.
In January, I found it hard to listen objectively, but two months later the album still sounds fabulous. Impending death has done for the man what decades of fumbling around in search of a comeback narrative couldn’t. It inspired him creatively, sure, but more importantly, it gave him a role to play. Almost automatically, it provided context, concept, content, which were the main ingredients missing from his long, dry, post-’80s period no matter how widely musical quality varied. Until recently, even diehard fans had given up hope that he’d ever again start trying on poses other than Art-Rocker Emeritus — Blackstar solves this problem, as much his Death Album as 1975’s Young Americans, say, was his Stylistics Album,. Several of these songs directly confront mortality, several more can be interpreted that way if you think about it, and on the whole Bowie inhabits the character of a dying rocker making his last album with the wild imaginative energy that animates so much of his best work. The album still feels tender, like sacred ground, as if critiquing it would break the laws of human decency, and I’m sure I wouldn’t like it so much were he still alive. It also wouldn’t exist as we know it were he still alive. Bowie wanted us to hear it this way; he designed it deliberately, as a farewell statement, with his own death in mind. If you hear melancholy in Blackstar, that’s no projection, especially if you also hear the exquisite mastery of an artist who knows full well he’s going out in style.
So allow me to break the laws of human decency and observe that Blackstar is hardly a perfect album. It’s a little short, for one, although there’s an elegance to that; the solemn, quasi-orientalist opener drags on for way too long, although it retains a certain wistful quality; the breezy, shrill, multifaceted band sound will take some getting used to for anybody who associates Bowie with upbeat glam-rock or wacky new wave. Interjections from various jazz instruments lend the album a voguish, avant-garde feel in the wake of recent acclaimed jazz-influenced albums by D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar, and insofar as it focuses on the workings of a live band in the studio without also shunning the digital alienation effect, Blackstar has more in common with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah than one might guess. But if not for the context — for Bowie’s reputation as a formal innovator, for the uncritical respect we feel inclined to give the album as a dying man’s last — this music would also sound horrendously kitschy, and much of it does even in context. While Bowie owned a wide range of vocal styles, most of them brilliant even if also jarring, he sings the songs on Blackstar in his pseudo-refined Anglophile/chansonnier croon, which in previous years he only pulled out for a ballad or two per album. While the band juxtaposes shiny, plastic, tangible jazz horns onto a solid, if somewhat stagy, hard rock base for the sake of cognitive dissonance, such music is then deployed to serve a style of affected, art-damaged torchsong that splits the difference between tough and teary. In a way, the dissonance itself is a form of kitsch, as when “Dollar Days” erupts in a bug-eyed saxophone solo backed by the cheesiest synth textures in Bowie’s arsenal. Yet at the same time the music is plenty enjoyable in itself, without any conceptual framing — the frantic low guitar rumble on “Sue (In a Season of Crime),” the crunchy guitar-horn combo hook that keeps interrupting Bowie/punctuating his sentences on “Lazarus,” and the airy sway of the guitar strum on “Dollar Days” suit Bowie’s crumbling voice perfectly, and even the silliest string overlays make themselves felt as part of a larger organic groove that’s always shifting, breathing, living. Woodwinds tie themselves in knots, guitars sizzle and splat, basslines thump to their own beat, harmonicas flutter in the wind, defining a style of rich, peaceful beauty. The album’s still pretty schlocky in the end, and irresistibly so. To this I credit Bowie’s talent as an actor.
David Bowie knew his fans well; he was well aware that he attracted the kind of obsessive who’d treat Blackstar as a mystical masterpiece containing the answers to profound questions like What is Death? What does Life Mean? What is Bowie trying to tell us from Beyond the Grave? Is the Starman speaking through him? Was the walrus Paul? — if only you dig deep enough and uncover all of its secrets. Indeed, many peculiar conspiracy theories and detailed exegeses have popped up since Blackstar’s release (what does this lyric mean? what if you play it backwards?) on fan websites and in professional music reviews both (for a sample, Google “the villa of Ormen”). Whether or not such a mystical masterpiece can actually exist, people can certainly treat an album like one, and, as Bowie knew, an album can certainly revel in its own mystique, and can certainly make a show out of being one. That’s why Dying Rock Star Delivering His Last Testament qualifies as a role he inhabits in addition to what he actually is. Quite consciously, the album plays up the obscurantism, the eerie spirituality, to maximize a semblance of profundity befitting a Last Testament. Hence, behold on Blackstar a whole bunch of beautiful, funny, scary, dreamy, intelligent, musically engaging kitsch. “Blackstar” nails the feeling in question, what with its uneasy beat, horn blare, string crescendos, vaguely Middle Eastern harmonies, and of course Bowie’s vocal histrionics (“In the villa of Ormen/in the villa of Ormen/stands a solitary candle/in the center of it all,” he starts off, and things only get grander from there). His plaintive moans and sighs on “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” capture the mystery exactly, as do the washes of static that punctuate the song at key moments. “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days” directly allude to death (“Look up here man I’m in heaven”; “Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free”) while establishing a sweeping, mythic tone dependent in the former on the horns’ bitter surge and in the latter on the acoustic strum. Finally, the measureless grace of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” ends the album on an epic note, riding its buoyant gliding stringthesizer off into the sunset. The album follows a grand emotional structure in terms of form more than it actually expresses that structure’s requisite emotions at each point in the progression (which would have been inflated and absurd). All the strings, all the attempts at poetry, these are included less for themselves than for the aura of seriousness they impart: better look now, he’s making a big statement! And thus does Bowie make a truly big statement — about performance, about tropes, about presentation, and, that’s right, about death, and the need to leave something behind. It’s a mystical masterpiece after all.
Blackstar is dense, harsh, difficult, beautiful, twisted and distanced in contradictory ways, which is to say it’s a classic David Bowie album. Right when I thought there wouldn’t be another, there now won’t be another. You couldn’t ask for a better ending.
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