Two days before his death on Jan. 10, David Bowie released “Blackstar” (2016), an experimental rock and jazz album produced by long-time collaborator Tony Visconti. Fans, critics and fellow musicians found the 25th studio album from the legendary English pop and rock star to be a welcome arrival, and many were eager to pore over the complex rhythms, instrumentation and lyrics of its seven tracks. What no one understood at the time was that “Blackstar” is so much more than just a rock album. It’s the work of a dying man channeling his energies, fears and talents into his art, crafting a “parting gift” for himself and the world.
Because of our retrospective understanding, it’s challenging to treat each song like we would any other. But why should we? There is an intentional poignancy granted by hindsight to each bleat of a saxophone, each drumbeat, each word sung. Bowie, who kept his terminal cancer a secret from the public and most of his collaborators, was probably cognizant of the possibility that “Blackstar” would be his last work. The album is not above scrutiny, but this element of performance art tied to the music elevates it to a different level.
Even without this elevation, which has given Bowie his first ever No. 1 album in the United States, “Blackstar” more than holds its own as a haunting, experimental work that melds hip-hop and jazz influences into rock songs about mortality, resurrection and self-reflection. The title track, a nearly 10-minute piece full of uneasy percussion and wandering jazz sax, is eerily prophetic. “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside / Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar,” Bowie croons at the first tempo change. With intense atmosphere and lyrics delving into the occult, the track clearly establishes the anxiety and tension that carries throughout the album.
“’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” originally released in November as the B-side of “Sue (Or In Season of a Crime),” delves into themes of war and showcases classic Bowie storytelling. Titled after a 17th century tragedy by John Ford, the track offers a refreshing shift in tempo and subject matter from the meandering “Blackstar.” “Sue” is actually a modern retelling of the play referenced in “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” and was the lead single of the 2014 Bowie compilation album “Nothing Has Changed.”
Originally penned for the eponymous off-Broadway show, “Lazarus” displays some of the most powerful vocals by Bowie on the album as he sings of his own mortality. Grizzly electric guitar and more complex work by saxophonist Danny McCaslin mesh with the underlying synths that have been prominent in Bowie’s work since his prolific Berlin period. The use of saxophone may also be self-reflective, as it was Bowie’s instrument of choice as a young boy learning to play music.
The final three tracks of “Blackstar” offer both its lowest and highest points. “Girl Loves Me,” with its lyrical and stylistic influences from rappers like Young Thug and Kendrick Lamar, is an interesting if not wholly successful exploration of sexuality and anger. In an album about death and mourning, anger has its place, but lyrics mixing the fictional Nadsat language from “A Clockwork Orange” (1962) and Polari slang from gay clubs in seventies London make for a muddled, opaque message.
Following “Girl Loves Me” are two songs so strong they will surely enter Bowie’s legacy of greats. On “Dollar Days,” the artist contemplates his career—both successes and regrets—while simultaneously looking forward into the unknowable future. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is shiver-inducing. Bowie croons, “I know something is very wrong,” gliding over synth and melding with harmonica sampled from his 1977 album “Low.” Dealing with themes of self-preservation and letting go, the track is as much an end as it is a beginning. It’s beautiful, moving, classic Bowie.
As a musician and as a fixture of popular culture, David Bowie has regularly been described as a chameleon because of his tendency to pick up, inhabit and drop personas and styles throughout his career. But what “Blackstar” makes clear is that, unlike a chameleon, Bowie wasn’t hiding from anything with these styles. Each one was true to his sense of self, to his musical and cultural interests and to his vision of the future. “Blackstar” is a testament to his artistic honesty and vulnerability, making the themes of the album all the more beautiful and deeply challenging for listeners to come to terms with. To us, Bowie seemed immortal: an alien rock god, a bluesy duke, a goblin king, a queer icon, an addict, an inspiration. But through it all, David Bowie was a human being who was afraid of death like everyone else. That fact is difficult and painful to accept, but it’s real.