*Written on January 12, 2016*
A review of David Bowie’s final album.
Yesterday, I walked into my early morning Mass Media class about as chipper as I could at 7:00 A.M. on a freezing January, Northeastern day. My teacher was playing “Life On Mars?,” one of my favorite Bowie songs, one I know to be his favorite, and I thought nothing of it aside from, “cool, I get to hear this song to kick off my day.” Then, another classmate of mine walked in and asked the teacher if he heard about “what happened to Bowie.” He replied,
“Yeah, that’s why I’m playing this.”
I knew that this couldn’t be good news, and I just frantically wondered out loud,
“What happened? Did David Bowie fucking die?!”
I couldn’t find out for myself since I don’t have a smart phone, so I turned to my friend sitting next to me and told him to look up whether or not he was dead. He typed in David Bowie, and the first search result was “david bowie dead.” He clicked on it, and there it was, a picture of the iconic “Heroes” cover pose, and the date: January 10, 2016. Two days after his 69th birthday, and two days after the release of his twenty-sixth studio album, “Blackstar,” Bowie had passed away from a long-term battle with cancer.
I listened to that album the day it came out and was thoroughly impressed with it. The creative song structures, either multi-faceted on the title track, or repetitive and improvisational on tracks like “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” were fresh, the heavy use of the saxophone that cuts through the music (not unlike what Kamasi Washington did on “To Pimp a Butterfly”) was brilliant, and the hard grooves and crisp production that call to mind Swans’s “To Be Kind” were a surprising flavor. I remember thinking to myself after listening to the album before his death that I couldn’t wait to see where he goes next, given how fresh, risky, and modern the album was. Obviously, that’s all changed now, but amidst the sadness and grief, “Blackstar” emerges as something completely different entirely. Given the context, “Blackstar” has ascended from being a really good album to something transcendent.
Over the past 18 months, little did we know that David Bowie was suffering from liver cancer, and was losing the battle. This isn’t just because it was kept a secret. We would never really expect a mythical, almost intangible figure like Bowie to have health problems. Because he was so unlike anything this planet had seen, and will ever see, we forget to think of David Bowie, the man, as just that, a man. He’s the Starman, he’s The Thin White Duke, he’s Ziggy Stardust, he’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, but Bowie, the man, was dying, and he knew he only had so much time left on this world. He recorded this album with that in mind. He was staring death in the face, and his passing just two days after the release only confirms that. In a way, Bowie used his death to “complete” this album, making its once cryptic themes now crystal clear, and making his final music video, ‘Lazarus,” featuring him blindfolded on his death bed, un-watchable. Leave it to David Bowie to turn his own death into a piece of performance art. He may have unfortunately lost the battle to cancer, but this is him spitting in the face of death and going out on his own terms, on top. It’s just another affirmation of this man’s genius.
I mean it when I say that he really did go out on top. “Blackstar” is a brilliant album. Before his passing, it was a damn good album, and now given the intended context, it was one of the most intense emotional experiences I’ve ever had listening to music. Either way, Bowie delivered one of my absolute favorite albums in his catalog, up there with other favorites like “Station to Station” and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.” This certainly isn’t an easy listen now, though. Lyrics like “look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” and “Oh I’ll be free just like that blue bird” from “Lazarus” are morbid depictions of a man accepting his own death. The incredible finale, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” is particularly emotional given that it acts as the knowing conclusion to someone’s life. It really feels like a grand closing, especially given how saxophonist Donny McCaslin (whose contributions to this album are amazing) really solos like he is playing off David Bowie’s life. It’s not a song I’m going to put on unless I want to cry, but that’s any Bowie song pretty much at this point, while the wound is this fresh. I cried to this album, I cried to the video for “Lazarus,” I cried to “Heroes” on several occasions, I cried to “Five Years,” I cried to “Life on Mars?,” etc. Hell, I even cried just sitting in my chair today. But that’s the grieving process, and to help us grieve, and to help him come to terms with it, David has offered us the most emotional mediation on death there’s ever been, and given the way everything unraveled, one of the most mind blowing concept albums ever.
A light went out on Earth two days ago, but David Bowie’s star shines in the sky forever. Farewell, Starman.