The greatest artist the world has ever known has died, but his last album is his most mysterious work of all.
On January 6th 2016 David Bowie released his 25th album called Blackstar. As a lifelong Bowie fan I bought it on the day of release and listened to it immediately, but at first I just didn’t get it. The music was abstract, the lyrics were incomprehensible, and it was, to be honest, a little alienating. I just couldn’t get my head around it. However, tragically on January 10th 2016, David Bowie passed away, and suddenly it all came together and made sense for me. Now all I can think about is, what an incredible goodbye letter his last album was for us as listeners. What I mean by this is how Blackstar is so chillingly retrospective (unusual for a Bowie album), but yet delightfully progressive, showing us (or me at least), that his prowess was still there even at the very end.
Now before I analyse the album through its individual songs, I believe there needs to be a small dose of context behind Bowie and his mentality. In his later years Bowie had become incredibly reclusive, not giving interviews, with both this and the previous album The Next Day being released with little to no fanfare. For an album by a reclusive rock star, the music reveals more about this man than if Bowie had kept speaking out loud. A man who is always looking towards the future and rarely, if ever, was nostalgic for his own past, is now confronted by his own mortality, finding himself looking back down the road travelled, because there is more road behind him than in front. So what are these songs are hiding?
The title track hints that this is a different album than previous ones. A more experimental factor is at play here. The music is a far cry from his more commercial output of the 70’s and 80’s.
“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, I’m a blackstar)”
One could read these lyrics as what might happen when his passing comes. That someone else will take his place and chant his message. Delving into his lyrics further, Bowie clearly searches through various identities. He references his acting career, his charting hits and pop music years, his deviant era (see his Russell Harty interviews), his sexuality and his absence from celebrity culture.
‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore:
This is one of two songs that were rerecorded from the compilation album ‘Nothing has Changed‘. It seems to be based upon a play of the same name. A strange song that has a very chaotic vibe. Yet, it could be seen as that he is saying this about himself (I doubt he’s calling his wife Iman a whore).
The last single to be released whilst he was alive, and also the title of his musical based upon his starring role in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now”
This could not be a more direct message about his thoughts post-death. That his secrets would be exposed and revealed to the world on his death. We can speculate on his various exploits, but it is an uncomfortable Google for a Bowie fan.
Sue (Or In A Season of Crime):
This is the other song to be re-recorded for this album. It holds a very film noir sound to it, while seeming to follow the plot of the play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Again not much to say here, but enjoyable in either form you listen.
Girl Loves Me:
“Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say
Party up mood, naddy vellocet round on Tuesday
Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday
Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday”
For starters the song is sung in Polari (a language mostly used by Gay people in Soho in the 1960’s when homosexuality was a crime), and Nadsat (a language created for the book A Clockwork Orange, and has a basis in Russian). When those lines are translated they go something like…
Girl so sound, so pretty up this boy, say
Party up man, no drugs round on Tuesday
Great pussy making all the men mad – Thursday
Police blind to the money in the prison by Friday
The song reads a strange story of finding promiscuous love under the rule of Big Brother (the mention of the Chestnut tree could be construed as the Cafe of the same name in Orson Wells 1984). Perhaps a reflective look at a more sexually experimental and chaotic time of his life, but it’s sad and repetitive in tone. However a very interesting song to decipher.
This is in my opinion the saddest part of the whole album, especially these lines.
“if I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
its nothing to me
Its nothing to see”
To me it’s a statement that he has no love for the United Kingdom any more having lived in America for so many years, it’s no longer part of his identity. This song can be seen as a letter to fans, apologising for all his secrecy in recent years, and how he hasn’t done interviews and press events.
I Can’t Give Everything Away:
Tonally it’s a good end to what can feel like a haunting set of songs. Bowie understands that when one shows how the magic trick is performed the magic of the trick disappears. Expect little or no explanation of his work.
At the end of the day Bowie left us with an album of questions and quite possibly, some of his best work. If I were to compare this to anything, it reminded me of Queen’s Innuendo Album. Both were made by dying artists with a message of death hidden throughout their music. All the while being some of their strongest and most powerful work.
Rest in Peace David Bowie.