[Columbia / RCA]
There were a few sure things about Blackstar, the final chapter of David Bowie’s Technicolor musical life. It would be brilliant, naturally, strange, ahead of its time and wholly wonderful. Jumping at the chance to actually review a David Bowie album upon its release on Friday, I certainly didn’t expect to write something as harrowing and personal as a tribute, but it must be both of these things.
As with most people of my generation, David Bowie always seemed to be a constant. Like an element, or some kind of natural force, the world without him would be inconceivable, he simply just was, and naturally always would be. His songs were played on the radio, on our parents’ CDs, his music videos on MTV. The thing about Bowie, for us, was that his genderless changeable form and style was not shocking. We had grown up within it, and like a generation before us, were formed by it.
Among the plethora of personal and deeply touching tributes, I’d like to offer my own.
I remember in my early teens, listening to the Best of Bowie album that was as integral a part of any household as a teapot or a hotpress. I would listen in my room, on my DiscMan, and would force the driver of whatever car I was in to play the album. With some pocket money I had saved for a week or two, I bought The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, rushed home, and devoured every note on the album. I transcribed the lyrics into a copybook I kept for the lyrics of my favourite songs, tore off the cover art and sellotaped it to my wall beside my mirror (along with other idols perhaps too embarrassing to discuss here). By the time I reached ‘Moonage Daydream’ I was completely in love with Ziggy Stardust.
It absolutely makes sense that I was perplexed and fascinated by Ziggy. I was young. Youth, alienation, reinvention, and everything that comes along with it, found its home in this cosmic alien entity. Before Bowie, my musical education had consisted of the authentic artists of the folk revival; Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, with Woodstock’s own brand of ‘authentic music’ following. Music was true to the soul, to the self, with meaningful and universal themes. Bowie, Ziggy, the Spiders from Mars, subverted everything I knew an artist to be. He was constructed, dressed up like an alien spaceman at Halloween, full to the brim of expressive make up, glitter, skin tight clothes and platforms that went on for days.
In the years that followed, I collected many Bowie albums, t-shirts from gigs that happened before I was born, and countless handwritten pages of lyrics. As I grew and changed, so did he, so did we all. Bowie taught us that changing, dressing up and being somebody else for a little while was perfectly okay, a lesson I was very grateful to have learned early on in my life. Our fleeting identities, constructed and shattered in a world of gendered norms, of oppressed sexualities, of the manufactured pop star, are beautiful and fragile masks that each of us wear. Bowie’s career teaches us that our identities are ours to play with. It’s okay to be a chameleon, as long as you do it with style.
And so, it is hard to believe that we have reached Bowie’s final form. Blackstar was released on Friday January 8, the day of David Bowie’s 69th birthday, and my favourite musical day of 2016 so far. The circumstances of its creation have by now been widely reported. Bowie knew he was ill for the duration of recording, and decided to leave us with a final word. The title track is intricate to say the least; spanning nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds, encompassing electronic elements, jazz, strained yet delicate vocals, and ominous timbres. Listening to this track after his passing, I can’t help but hear ‘Blackstar’ as the booming opening act for Bowie’s own Requiem. It sets the tone as wildly experimental, raw, and honest.
‘Lazarus’, the finest track on the album, continues this experimentation, with dark and gloomy bass lines, cosmic whirring of electric sounds, and lyrics of freedom, pain, and death, as beautiful as they are heartbreaking. More jazz elements subvert and confuse the tone, until the instrumentation leaves you dizzily grasping to Bowie’s captivating yet soft vocal performance. It is dramatic and gripping, like a spot-lit soliloquy, centre stage in his final act. His conviction while singing “Look up here, man, I’m in danger / I’ve got nothing left to lose” invites us into a very personal place, as we retrospectively and tirelessly listen, relisten, even transcribe in some cases, every word and every possible meaning, for these will be the last.
Blackstar, in both content and circumstance, is the final mask of David Bowie. It’s fitting that the album blends so many of his iconic musical styles and genres; cosmic electronic, jazz elements, lyrics both dark and clever, and a kind of forward thinking that only he could convey. It is with great sadness that we each, in our own way, say goodbye to the many names and faces of Bowie, but it is also with great joy that we accept Blackstar as his final word. The album is terrific, of course it is, and it trusts us with some of Bowie’s most deeply personal music to date. If we take nothing else from this final bow, and from the death of one of music’s most captivating pioneers, it is that music transcends the life of the creator and can unite a world, unite generations, in the celebration of creativity.
The Bowie of my childhood will remain a constant to me, as he will for my parents. He will continue to influence the music industry in ways both obvious and subtle, and of course, as if it needs saying, he will be dearly, dearly missed.