The Ultimate: Blackstar

blackstar-coverA 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.

 

 

It’s (Approximately) Publishing Day!

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Thanks to exceptionally speedy editing at Spuyten Duyvil Press, Burn Lyrics is now out in the world!  This is a special one: it features the artwork of the amazing Thuy-Vân Vu, and Spuyten Duyvil gave me almost complete control over design.  The bulk of the material consists in poems incorporating the extant fragments of Sappho.  Additionally, there is a special bonus track, the long poem “Objet Un.”

Burn Lyrics Forthcoming This August

Burn Lyrics Cover

Thanks to the phenomenal production work of Tod Thilleman at Spuyten Duyvil Press and to the exceptionally talented Thuy-Vân Vu, who contributed the cover image, Burn Lyrics is taking shape.  Laura Kasischke, Craig Santos Perez, A. Van Jordan and Monica Youn provided generous descriptions of this work, snippets of which you can read here.  This has been a wild ride, beginning with my obsessive reading and re-reading of Sappho’s fragments (as translated by Anne Carson in If Not, Winter), followed by months of percolation and dreaming.  You can get a copy of the end result in August, 2016.

Turn and Face the Strange

By some terrible freak of timing, my wife and I were watching Amy—the biopic of the poignantly condensed arrival and departure of Amy Winehouse—Sunday night, while another cultural tragedy was in the works. I went to bed troubled by thoughts of the many songs we would never get to hear by a tremendously talented vocalist who flamed out too early. On the road to mainstream fame, Winehouse placed her jazz inclinations in the service of a pop machine; the strain is palpable, as her subdued melisma shoulders through the ends of her lyrical breaks. It makes one wonder—had she been able to cope with the trappings of celebrity—if she would have found a way to return to her small-room approach to song.

And then Monday morning came news of David Bowie’s death; it was now doubly impossible to leave the house, even though a clear sky beckoned over new snow. I wanted nothing except to mark the passing of a remarkable artist, and so I tuned into all of the tribute gifs and selected epigrams. I have to admit, though: I was moved, certainly as shocked as everyone else by the unanticipated loss, but not despondent. Bowie’s long career had allowed him to invent and reinvent himself many times over, from bewildered astronaut to hyper-sane alien, empathetic outcast, futuristic lover, goblin king. His dedication to a storyline, combined with a mastery of spectacle, meant that his art crossed genres and established further lines of communication among fashion, dance, music, literature, cinema and theater.

And before Bowie could become tired of a persona—long before his audience would allow—he retired it. Winehouse’s arch beehive and archly slurred pronunciations hinted at future transformations, if only she had been allowed the time to initiate them. Given the gift of endurance, Bowie wrung the sponge of identity as few others have, and his successful experiments with personae questioned power dynamics, perceptions of beauty, notions of artificiality and authenticity, and made us think post-nationally. All this happened alongside the trampling over of musical boundaries that seems to be an understated given in Bowie’s recordings. A similar restlessness moves like a powerful current underneath the cross-genre experiments in Winehouse’s few dozen recordings. The example of these two artistic lives should encourage all of us in the arts to seize the possibilities of continual reinvention. It’s a new year. Live, write, what-have-you, in a new way. We’re only borrowing this stardust.

Space of the Poem

Yes, the poem lives in the breath, but it also describes space on the page and is as much a room as a universe. Glück’s “For My Mother” (The House on Marshland) gives us this:

…And then spring
came and withdrew from me
the absolute
knowledge of the unborn,
leaving the brick stoop
where you stand, shading
your eyes, but it is
night, the moon
is stationed in the birch tree,
round and white among
the small tin markers of the stars:
Thirty years. A marsh
grows up around the house.
Schools of spores circulate
behind the shades, drift through
gauze flutterings of vegetation.

See the dimensions expand, disappear? Notice the cherished objects—“house,” “mother,” “marsh”—inhabiting the space concomitantly, in a way also made richly evident in Richard McGuire(et. al.)’s graphic statement, Here. Of course, the paradox is that this space is not an area into which we can step. It occurs within us, it consumes us. We conceive it and it conceives of us. In art, we can describe its height, width and breadth, but only for an instant as it constricts or explodes, changing as we change.

“Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight”

In the summer of 2008, I had the pleasure of leading an experiential class of undergraduates in the woods of Maine. On this particular night, we gathered in the crisp evening air around a campfire and read Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, round-robin style. I expected a few students to nod off in the warm glow of the campfire, perhaps being caught off guard when their time came to read. But the incantatory nature of Kinnell’s work, if anything, had the opposite effect, lulling all of us into a heightened sense of apprehension. Students took their parts with whetted appetites.

What I remember most about that reading was the sense that the young people in that circle were, through Kinnell’s words, experiencing mortality in its various dimensions, registering both physical and emotional vulnerability. These were students who spent their days in strenuous physical pursuits—swimming, jogging, canoeing, solo hiking, etc.—and it seemed as though this reading was allowing them to relax into an emotional receptivity that for Kinnell is occasioned by parenthood but is somehow delivered with sufficient dexterity as to apply across all audiences. Then, as now, I am struck by Kinnell’s versatility, and I am so grateful that we will always have this work, although the poet is gone.