why david bowie’s 'blackstar' is a lesson in growing old meaningfully
The most important pop star is back with an experimental new record that rivals his best. We dissect the album and explain why Bowie’s second life is turning out to be so rich.
It's commonly remarked that David Bowie is pop's chameleon, but the description doesn't sit quite right. Chameleons blend into their backgrounds and become invisible. Bowie is a creature that moves in the opposite direction; he assumes characters and makes the background change to mimic them.
He might not be a chameleon, but he's certainly always been a magpie, picking at the fringes of the cultural landscape for shiny things to turn into gold. The rumors surrounding Blackstar -- his 26th studio album that arrives today, on his 69th birthday -- suggested he'd been listening to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. It's an influence you can certainly detect.
Bowie's no chameleon because he's always stood out. The closest he's come to blending into the background was during his ten year absence, when it was supposed he'd quietly retired after releasing Reality in 2003, and suffering a heart attack the following year during a performance in Germany.
He returned, out of nowhere, in 2013 with The Next Day. The video for the title track imagined Bowie as Lazarus making a miraculous return. The song's aggro-glam refrain summed it up: "Here I am not quite dying." If it was surprising he was back, it was even more surprising that he was making forward-thinking, relevant music again. It was a cartwheeling victory lap that made everyone realize how much they'd missed him.
The Next Day positioned Bowie as a full-on national treasure; the record was packed with statesman-like big rock songs, vaudeville passion, and artfully twisted pop hits. It was also injected with references to Bowie's past: from London to Berlin to New York, glam to ambient to funk. Yet more than just rehashing the hits, it was an album that was elegiac for a disappearing past. The Next Day's cover photo featured a white square blocking out the image of Bowie on the iconic Heroes cover. It felt like Bowie was wiping the slate clean in order to start again. But it was also something of a lament, as if the shedding of personas gets more and more difficult as you run out of skin to shed.
Here he was, not quite dying, but The Next Day was full of death. When you're in your late sixties, one heart attack down, the next day is not necessarily hopeful. Each next day is a little closer to death. The music of The Next Day wasn't radical, but it was better, and more relevant, than anything a 66-year-old had the right to be making. If Bowie's career has been defined by the series of masks he's worn, The Next Day was a way of letting them go, a panegyric for their passing. But it was hard to decide whether The Next Day was a beginning or an end. He staunchly refused to tour, did no interviews, sent out Kate Moss to collect his Brit Award for Best British Male. And then Bowie slipped back into the ether again.
Two years later, again out of nowhere, Bowie quietly released the video for a new single -- the title track off an accompanying new album, Blackstar. The track was a ten-minute-long post-apocalyptic odyssey that was confusing, vital, and new. There was a hint of that Kendrick influence, sure; those jazz-flecked structures the rapper employs on To Pimp A Butterfly were there. But Blackstar used this sonic structure as a springboard to dive into deep, weird water. This was Bowie at his gnomic and obtuse best, with a video full of symbolism to push pseuds like me into overdrive: a dead spaceman, a jewel encrusted skull, a woman with a monobrow and a tail, a group of women performing a ritual around a candle, crucified scarecrows, Bowie dancing a jittering jig with bandaged-up eyes. Then there was the music: dissonant, scattershot jazz drums mingled with eastern tinged electronics and lush strings, chanting vocals, and lyrics with mystical allusions.
It's hard to know what to make of it, and I guess that's exactly what Bowie wants. You only have to look at the annotated lyrics to the song on Genius to see how much time people have spent pouring over every lyrical and visual detail. The most powerful moments in Bowie's canon have always been when he's at his most cryptic and inscrutable. Thankfully, Blackstar is cryptic and inscrutable throughout.
"Tis A Pity She Was A Whore" references a 1633 play by John Ford about an incestuous brother-sister relationship. It keeps up the relentless drums of "Blackstar," only thicker and slower, less ebullient, twisted into something darker and more elegiac. The music video for "Lazarus," -- released yesterday -- features Bowie reprising his bandaged eyes and manic dancing. Both the track and its accompanying visuals obviously recall the singer back from the grave of retirement; "I've got nothing left to lose" he sings at one point, "oh ain't that just like me." But the song's most poignant moment comes at the conclusion, "oh I'll be free" he repeats as the song fades to black. The defining mood of the album, though, is not freedom, but claustrophobia. "Oh, I'll be free" is more wish than statement.
Blackstar is an album about the impossibility of escape from the variety of selves Bowie's created for himself. There's claustrophobia in the way the record dares not to stay still; those skittering drum patterns and freeform saxophone that recalls Berlin-era Subterraneans. It's one of the only moments on the record that recalls Bowie's past explicitly (sax appears on a number of tracks). Blackstar's length and structure, though, recall Station to Station, Bowie's thrilling, weird, bleak, cocaine-and-milk LA-period album that came in the wake of killing off Ziggy Stardust and his glam rock phase.
Like Station to Station, this album always restlessly pushes forwards; there's something inescapable and trapping about that. Where The Next Day was elegiac, Blackstar is nihilistic -- overflowing with the absence that comes with the shedding of selves. If anything, it could be about the existential terror of a newfound freedom; what to do in the wake of a miraculous rebirth? It's about the nervous difficulty of finding a new creative style.
That's an idea alluded to on the album's final track "I Can't Give Everything Away." Maybe the most straightforward of the tracks, its title says it all. Speaking i-D's Tricia Jones back in 1987, Bowie said, "I think the most important thing is to actually try and grow old... meaningfully." These two albums, taken together, prove he has.
Text Felix Petty
Photography Jimmy King