In his 1975 single “Golden Years”, David Bowie sings “Never look back, walk tall, act fine.” Thirty-five years later, it is apparent that Bowie took his own advice. David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, 18 months after being diagnosed with cancer, and only two days after his 25th and final studio album, Blackstar, was released. News of his illness and battle with cancer were kept secret; not even Bowie’s closest friends knew. Even though Bowie was planning a follow-up to Blackstar, he new his days were numbered, and had for a while. The result is an eerie, cryptic, and stunning record that is arguably the farthest Bowie has ever forayed from straight up pop. Blackstar is, in short, Bowie’s brilliant response to his impending death.
Musically, this album is meticulously arranged, lush, and constantly shifting. The title track “Blackstar” kicks off the record with tight, irregular drums, a wailing saxophone and etherial synth swells. This is certainly the jazziest Bowie has ever been on record. Bowie’s vocals are haunting and unclear. About 4 minutes in, the track shifts time signatures, and gives way to a creeping groove. Bowie’s vocals are poignant and well performed, and he repeatedly sings “I’m a black star”: a star that has let out it’s last light for all to see, a star that is dying.
Bowie’s most telling moment comes in the first lines of “Lazarus”, where he sings in a slightly weak sounding voice, “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” after an intro bass riff that would not be out of place in a Joy Division song. “Lazarus” maintains a post-punk aesthetic throughout; moody vocals, distorted guitars slapped in reverb, and driving drums that, coupled with the sombre saxophones, give the song a certain melancholy to it. The music video for “Lazarus” is equally poignant. It features a sickly looking Bowie on a hospital bed, blindfolded, arms stretched skyward. The video goes back and forth between the hospital bed and Bowie frantically writing, as if trying to beat a rapidly approaching dead line.
“Dollar Days” seems to be a highly self-reflective song, and arguable the prettiest arrangement on the entire record. Bowie makes reference to the music industry (by comparing it to an oligarchy), his longing for his English boyhood home, and his life decisions. “Dollar Days” is Bowie openly reflecting on his life for all to see. Over and over, Bowie sings “I’m trying to” and “I’m dying to”, the latter of which operates as a wonderful ambiguity; Bowie could be saying how he is trying and wants more than anything to write music in his final days, or he could literally be saying “I’m dying, too.” Musically, this song beautifully spans Bowie’s career as well. The gently strummed acoustic guitar of “Space Oddity”, synths reminiscent of the Berlin-era, and the same wailing saxophones that characterize Blackstar.
“I Can’t Give Everything Away” opens with the same harmonica melody that Bowie uses in “New Career in a New Town”, off of 1977’s Low. That theme repeated here, taken from a song about change, makes perfect sense. Bowie knows he is staring the largest change fathomable straight in the face.
In truth, all seven tracks on here are excellent. In “Girl Loves Me”, Bowie sings about the rapid passage of time, over an immaculate, irregular, and yet driving drum beat. “‘Tis A Pity She Was a Whore”, which according to a note posted by Bowie back in November is thematically connected with World War I, features some free flowing saxophones over a skeletal march-like drum beat. Even if the deeply meaning lyrics all over this album are ignored (which they obviously should never be), ever track on Blackstar is excellent. The music is off-kilter, experimental, even occult or unsettling in places. But despite this the songs have strong hooks, catchy melodies, and are beautifully arranged. Blackstar is probably the liveliest album about death around. But through the allusions to death and Bowie’s pained voice, there is an underlying optimism. “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” both touch on the prospect of life after death. It’s impossible to say if Bowie is looking down at us from heaven, but David Bowie’s music and legacy will long outlive him or any of us. Bowie had one of the greatest careers of any musician, and fittingly Blackstar is a monumental end to a monumental career.