‘Blackstar’ David Bowie’s perfect swan song

I had a review for this record written out days ago.

Blackstar, David Bowie’s staggering twenty-fifth solo release since 1969, made its way online a few weeks before its January 8th street date. As an ardent Bowie scribe, I listened to it almost daily. The first big release of 2016 was here, and better yet, it was good. The raw experimentalism and opulent theatrics that drew me to Bowie in the first place were on full display, but reigned in with slick production and tight arrangements from longtime mixing board wingman Tony Visconti. Blackstar is a good album.

But what does any of that mean now?

This morning, news broke that the 69 year-old, who came into this world as David Jones, has made his exit. Bowie kept an 18-month battle with liver cancer secret until finally submitting to the ravages of the disease a scant two days after the official release of what would be his final bow. It’s the kind of tragically poignant timing that is all too prevalent in art, be it Romeo and Juliet or J. Dilla’s untimely death days after the release of Donuts. Of course, Bowie, the consummate showman, could not have wanted it to happen any other way.

Why else would Blackstar reek so thoroughly of death? The jarring imagery of the album, from the dusty, bejeweled skeleton of a lost astronaut in the video for the ten-minute title track to the Biblical-epic-turned-musical-number of “Lazarus,” explores death and decay in ways only one close to the end could. If, then, Blackstar is meant to be viewed as Bowie’s mournful last goodbye, a reappraisal of its content and message is in order.

Life and death play pivotal roles on Blackstar. Resurrection is not something done lightly, and Bowie didn’t come out of pseudo-retirement in 2013 just to revisit the glory days.That year’s The Next Day was not quite as brash, not quite as groundbreaking as some previous efforts, but it was just what we as an audience needed to hear from a figure who spent the better part of the last decade shying away from the studio. Compare the fairly straightforward pop of “The Stars are Out Tonight” to the manic, jazzy pulse of “Blackstar.” Over forty-plus years in music, David Bowie never ran out of things to say.

The myth of David Bowie is fundamental in understanding how Blackstar tics as a cohesive piece. Bowie’s recent off-Broadway musical and quasi-companion to this album, Lazarus, adapts Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, famously brought to the screen in 1976 with Bowie leading as the titular alien, spins hard sci-fi with Bowie’s catalog in a way that seems all too obvious in retrospect. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, every phase of Bowie’s career coalesces into a collection of songs that serves as a heartfelt look back over a storied career as well as one of music’s most profound goodbyes.

The songs on Blackstar are some of the most exquisite tracks the “musical chameleon” has delivered since Let’s Dance. From the ritzy pomp of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” to the bluesy churn of “Sue,” Blackstar is the natural end point of Bowie’s decades-long quest for raw, unrefined eclecticism.

Bowie had to know his time was running out. There is no better explanation for how thoroughly and hauntingly he has managed to sign off with this record. Blackstar is hard to listen to now, as every song feels like a carefully-crafted piece of his final message. Through the grief, however, there is catharsis to be had. The video for “Lazarus” features a blindfolded, button-eyed Bowie writhing on a hospital bed as he submits to his fate. It’s an exceedingly difficult watch with the pain of his loss so fresh, but sticking around long enough yields decidedly bittersweet fruit: as the song’s first verse springs to life, Bowie breathes with all the tragic, cosmic knowing he has perpetuated over his career these simple words: “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”