David Bowie was continuously a few steps ahead. Whether it be his ideologies on race and gender, fashion statements, or reinvention of his sound, the only logical explanation was that Bowie wasn’t from Earth, bringing groundbreaking freshness from a far more culturally-advanced planet.
Even in death, Bowie blindsided us all, discombobulating the human race in the process. “Blackstar” was released on his 69th birthday, and critics praised the record, chalking up the themes of mortality to Bowie’s usual surrealness, and misinterpreting certain lyrics as a clear path for a comeback.
Three days later, the world found out the truth: Bowie was dead, and “Blackstar” was his final gift to his fans, his swan song. A great record became cemented as genius, and morbid themes turned downright eerie.
The title track, “Blackstar,” starts off Bowie’s adieu, acknowledging his inevitable implosion and welcoming someone brave to take his place. The album’s title and the track’s repetitive chorus allude to the natural phenomena of the black star; a star that implodes on itself, and space time itself ceases to exist within it. While the star is considered dead, its energy continues to be released indefinitely.
Bowie had cited Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” (obvious in non-chalant lyrics tacking difficult topics, careful orchestration & jazzy ensembles throughout) as a major influence for the record, and had stated in past interviews that rappers are the only ones making creative music.
While Bowie could be declaring himself as the black star, he also introduces a brave individual in the chorus unafraid to claim they too are a blackstar, but “not a gangsta.” According to Bowie’s past statements and the song’s chorus, Bowie’s ideal replacement may be a rapper. “Blackstar” cements not only the death of Bowie, but the final nail in the coffin of glam-rock as art music, ushering in his place the next era of influential avant-garde found in modern rap.
“Lazarus” serves as the record’s most transparent message from beyond the grave. Originally, the song’s haunting lyrics and themes of mortality caused no panic, since the track was originally written for an off-Broadway production starring Michael C. Hall. After his passing, the parallels between Bowie and biblical character Lazarus became painstakingly clear, since they were both dying slowly of incurable illness.
Looking down from heaven, he recalls his final months on Earth and his legacy. He warns listeners he’s in danger, and has nothing left to lose as he is released of the chains of modern life and worldly objects, indicated by the dropping of his cell phone. Bowie recalls his theatrical past, and alludes to the troubling Thin White Duke era, where he lost much money to copious amount of cocaine and lawsuits with ex-manager Tony DeFries. Following these troubling moments in Bowie’s life, the listener can breath a sigh of relief in the final line of “Lazarus” at the realization that now Bowie is free as a bluebird. Ain’t that just like him?
The 17th century John Ford play was the inspiration for “‘Tis a Pity She Was A Whore” and “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime).” Both were released as singles in 2014, but take on new meaning in the context of this record. While the speaker is the voice of the play’s male characters, Bowie’s past infidelity and several marriages suggest he is a whore critiquing himself, and in his final days makes an effort to empathize with the lovers he’s wronged.
Lyrics for “Girl Loves Me” at first glance seem like gibberish. However, they are heavily written in a mixture of Russian-influenced slang used in A Clockwork Orange called Nadsat and Polari, a slang language from gay clubs in 70s London, alluding to Bowie’s crazy drug-induced and sex-filled partying past. “Where the fuck did Monday go? I’m cold to this pig and pug show” is the eerie chorus repeated in this track, foretelling Bowie’s death on a Sunday, and the scrambled post-mortem analysis of the record that following day.
Ballads close out the album, the first of two being “Dollar Days.” Just a few days ago, listeners might attribute the bridge “I’m dying to, I’m trying to” as Bowie’s to-do list and promises of what’s to come. Days later, however, the fans take these line more literally. “Dollar Days” instead is a list of regrets, and the painful effort Bowie put into his final record while battling cancer is realized. Evident with the gravity of this release, Bowie reminds fans in this track that he isn’t forgetting them, and urges listeners to always go against the grain. Down to his dying day, Bowie succeeded in fooling us all, again and again.
Bowie states his final words in “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” making his death just as elusive and mysterious as his life. He prepared for the “flowered news” to break and the record’s deeper meanings to be revealed, never explicitly discussing his ongoing cancer throughout recording, but alluding to the idea as vaguely and eloquently as only Bowie can do.
Blackstar is a beautiful ode to Bowie’s life, and a surreal punctuation to his extensive career. The record served as everything Bowie wanted to say, everything he never will, and all he ever meant.
The folks at Work | Release will be honoring the life and work of David Bowie on Thursday evening, with DJs spinning his discography all night long & a special visual tribute at 9PM. For more info, click here.