A Review of David Bowie’s Final Album
I finally brought myself to listen straight through to David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar. It’s a brief farewell at 42 minutes, which is just about the amount of time I spend on a jogging route. So, that was me, slowing to a walk at the road’s shoulder and looking a bit stricken, trying to regain a resting heartrate while Bowie, at the end, lamented that he “can’t give everything…away.”
Blaskstar doesn’t quite dazzle with lyric inventiveness, nor does it include the variation that marks those few perfect albums that we want to play, end to end, until we can’t take it anymore. Still, the title song, a 10-minute opera, will not let you go. Beginning with an overdubbed drone chant, it is a glowering rune, shot through with laser synth and a rattling snare that eventually gives way to tom work and a squawking tenor sax. The sax (Donny McCaslin) is a recurring presence on the album, which feels right as a figuration of Bowie’s forceful and quicksilver persona: it pleads and gutters and trails off and tries again, entering through another door. And unlike the keyboard or the guitar, the sax is generally capable of producing only one note at a time: the human voice, in all of its reedy, braying, simpering limitations.
The first half of “Blackstar” describes an obscure or invented ritual which will give mystical Bowie fans plenty of fodder for discussion in the years to come (“In the Villa of Ormen / stands a solitary candle […]”). But at 4:21, a double fade briefly overlays the end of the chant with high, quivering strings, like a Hollywood fanfare, and we set—or so it would seem—on a melodic journey, a self-mythologizing narrative familiar from Ziggy Stardust days. Only this time, the hero’s saga begins at the end—“Something happened on the day he died: / spirit rose a meter then stepped aside. / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried— / I’m a Blackstar, / I’m a Blackstar.’” Nothing quite prepares you for the alien, injured, needy insistence of the refrain, which turns a story of ascendency into a parable of subjectivity and parasitic egotism. The quest for self-definition, the fragile solipsism behind the realization that we all “want eagles in [our] daydreams and diamonds in [our] eyes”—in short, to be human, with a sense of meaning—weave their spell for a while, but they eventually wreck themselves against the nothingness of blackstar-ness, signaled by the return of the chant, another gorgeous and devastating turn. One might almost stop here and be satisfied.
Two labored intakes of breath precede the straight-ahead, uptempo drumming of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,’” operating as a sort of misdirect—as though anything in a Bowie album might escape post-production. As it turns out, the song has nothing to do with the incestuous relationship of the John Ford play from which it borrows its title. Bowie explained that the song is a reflection, in part, on the Great War, but to my mind, a more psychologically precise comparison might be made to the exploits and demise of Mercutio, the rogue in Queen Mab glory. This is the Mercutio who dubs Tybalt, the superior swordsman and means of Mercutio’s death, a “whore,” for making men lie down—in untimely death. Like all rascals, Mercutio sees the end coming, but he is intent on having a laugh at death’s expense, which goes a long way toward explaining Bowie’s obvious relish and quavering falsetto in the refrain.
For those of us who absorbed news of Bowie’s death on the Internet, how can we separate the music from the imagery Bowie provided for us in the music video of “Lazarus,” which dropped alongside the album? I will only say that I prefer to experience the tremendous, arcing glissandos of brass, buzzy woodwinds and distorted guitar with eyes closed.
It’s difficult not to see Blackstar exclusively through the lens of Bowie’s terminal illness, not the least because of the sober, minimalistic packaging, but there is plenty here that bespeaks a musician still very much in thrall with life, and making music as though it might go on forever. There is “Girl Loves Me,” the playful send-up of tough culture written in Anthony Burgess’s invented language, Nadsat, which exclaims, amidst a litany of debauchery set to a predatory stomp, “Where the fuck did Monday go!?” It seems life is slipping away for Alex and his droogs, their empty exploits developing a workaday senility that many of us more domesticated sorts can appreciate. Then, there is the daytrippy banality of “Dollar Days,” with its steel string rhythm guitar, piano and orchestral strings contrasting bittersweetly with the “survival sex” and “foaming oligarchs.” Bowie worked famously with decoupage and found text, but here, the tabloid snippets are a thin cover for profound connection, “the English evergreens I’m running to.” It’s a lingering tribute to delights of the flesh: “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you. / I’m trying to. / I’m dying to.”
Which brings us to the final song we will have from Bowie, in which he comes as close as he does to earnest crooning, against brisk drums and harmonica, sax and guitar solos. You will swear that William Blake just breezed through the twenty-first century:
I know something’s very wrong.
The pulse returns the prodigal sons.
With blackout hearts, with flowered news,
with skull designs upon my shoes.
I can’t give everything away.
As a mortal, Bowie is, like us mitigated to a body that will deceive him. We may imagine what songs he might have written yet, but how likely is it that he would have eclipsed this final, brilliant flaring? In stretching musical genre, periodically reinventing himself and continually expanding the definition of performance, he gave away—and gave us—more than we could have imagined.