In the muted wisdom of his august years, David Bowie had relaxed his propensity for the artist-as-art subtext which had always accompanied his music (or was it the other way around?) and instead adopted an antithetical reclusiveness, whereby new releases were casually and unexpectedly slid under the door like an apologetically late Christmas present. It was in this slightly bewildering manner that 2013’s The Next Day was delivered, and, well, just kind of left at that (tour the album? Ha. Pull the other one). It seemed that, having long ago been relieved by generational turnover of the responsibilities of progress and relevance, Bowie was happy to forgo all the time-honoured publicly-lived rockstar nonsense and just play in the corner, grooming his genius for nobody’s benefit or pleasure but his own. Thankfully, we still, every now and then, were deigned to merit a peek at what he’d been up to; unfortunately, his latest creation, Blackstar, has turned out to be his last.
Blackstar, in contrast with the relatively straightforward musicality of The Next Day, is as free as fire and weird as hell. While The Next Day was a thrilling reminder that Bowie could still rock hard and write great tunes, the darker Blackstar cuts straight back to the Bowie bread-and-butter of being disconcertingly original. The title track, which opens the album, is a ten-minute tumble through modal tricks and unsettlingly obscure lyrics that makes ‘The Pyramid Song’ sound like ‘Frere Jacques’, and the supposedly redeeming groove which lurches forth midway through is unable to resist the corrupting influence of the song’s dark gravity, and it ends more perverse than it began, which was pretty damn perverse indeed.
The rest of the album doesn’t dilute the peculiarity of this precedent, and the subsequent six songs strike equally disorienting tones. ”Tis a Pity She’s a Whore’ and ‘Lazarus’ leer unpleasantly, the former with a fervent psychosis and the latter with a depressive languor, and ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ and ‘Girl Loves Me’ only deepen the madness. The album’s final two tracks almost don’t manage to restore a semblance of sanity, but the fundamental elegiac sweetness of ‘Dollar Days’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ ensure that you’re never completely alienated by the delirium which precedes them.
Indeed, alienation seems to be the overriding effect of the album. The music is a bizarre stylistic stew, the lyrics are sad, lewd, or both, when they aren’t incomprehensible, and Bowie twists and moulds his voice like he hadn’t in years. But no matter how uncomfortable Blackstar makes you feel, ultimately the songs are too engrossing, too morosely fascinating to reject, never mind too artfully wrought. And now, in the context of Bowie’s death, which, as we now know, he knew was coming soon, all this exploratory darkness seems insuperably more brave, more astounding, more heartbreaking.
The previously mysterious lyrics of ‘Lazarus’ are now tragically clear in their morbid meaning, and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, the last song of his last album, seems to lament the dreadful totality of Bowie’s final, most daring artistic project: To die. Insist though he may that he couldn’t give everything away, the world that he’s left infinitely richer behind him will beg to differ.
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