Star Man Fades to Black: David Bowie’s Brilliant Final Album

bowie-blackstar-viceAmid the frantic beats, atmospherics, and saxophones playing tug of war on the title track that opens the new David Bowie album Blackstar, about halfway through the 10-minute track most of the sound clears and Bowie sings “Something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a meter and stepped aside; Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried.”

Released on his birthday and just two days before his death, Blackstar is dizzying and exciting and strange and oddly cool and I thought all those things even before he died. But now it’s a little more difficult to hear him wailing “good-byyyyyyye” as the reverb increases and the star man sounds like he’s floating back into space or heaven or wherever he was just visiting from.

Secrets are hard kept in the modern age, and yet somehow Bowie could spend months working on a new album with a small group of people and the rumors never leaked. He stunned the world in 2013 when he suddenly had a brand new (and quite rocking) album, The Next Day. It seemed amazing, even a few years ago, that a major artist could be at work and finished with an album without the world hearing any rumors or news about it (let alone a leaked copy of the actual album). It didn’t hurt that it was a well-received return to form, a rare feat a full 10 years after his previous album.

He came close to pulling it off again, but in 2015 it looks like he chose to give the world a few months’ notice that he’d employed a New York City jazz band to back him on a very diverse record to be released January 8, on his 69th birthday.

And just as we were in the midst of unpacking this complex and interesting new album, Bowie was gone.

The world mourns online and it is one of the bittersweet and ironic advantages of the internet: we can all be together when we’re all alone and sad about the passing of a true artist. And among the inevitable retweets of clueless teenagers asking “who tf was david bowie?” there were countless tributes and notes of sadness, as well as attempts at joy (like this, from Dean Podestá @jesuisdean: “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”) Others commented that Bowie left such a huge void, as if an entire color was now gone from the universe. (Here’s a great collection of newspaper/magazine covers mourning the loss.)

I wasn’t a huge Bowie fanatic; I liked pretty much all his hits, knew some of his albums, saw him in concert once, and I understood his significance and influence in rock music and popular culture. And I’m probably one of the people that loved his first Tin Machine album. But even beyond the music, Bowie made being “weird” or just being yourself (and shattering such labels as “weird”) something to aspire to. Funny that there was a time when a kid could get beat up for liking David Bowie. But we don’t live in a world like that anymore, thanks in part to David Bowie. It’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to be different.

He didn’t just predict the future, he helped us get here.

Beyond his daring outfits and androgynous personae and groundbreaking showmanship, Bowie also existed as a bit of a generation gap, or actually a bridge. He had hit collaborations with John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bing Crosby, Queen, Tina Turner, and many others. He helped launch the careers of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Luther Vandross. He’s been credited as the first “major artist” to sell a complete album exclusively as a digital download online (1999’s Hours). He challenged MTV for discriminating against black artists. And, in another juxtaposition of the pop culture space-time continuum, The Breakfast Club, a defining coming-of-age movie for my generation (but not Bowie’s) memorably closes with a screenshot of a classic Bowie lyric: “And these children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through…”

Obviously Bowie was quite aware of what he was going through as he made this final album. It sounds urgent, vital, busy, and funky. Blackstar sounds so fresh; it’s “challenging” (in a good way, not in a “I guess we should assume this noise is brilliant cuz he’s legend who just died” way). This is no quiet crooners’ coda. It’s filled with slinky grooves and badass beats. Apparently, during the album sessions Bowie was heavily influenced by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Jazzy horns dance over breakbeats and occasional blasts of guitar-fuzz basslines. And yet Bowie is ethereal, floating over it all. He was always mysterious but now all the mist of his death will forever cloud our vision of this brilliant album. And make no mistake, this isn’t the grief talking, it really is a great album.

So instead of leaving us to write about his past hits and a whole career summarized by soundbites, Bowie has written his own obituary, but instead he turned it into a press release for a brand new piece of art. As if he’s saying, “Don’t eulogize, just listen.”

Leave it to Bowie, internationally renowned artists’ artist to turn his death into a work of art. A true final act.

Longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti confirmed the deliberate timing of the album in a statement: “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it.”

We will continue to sift through Blackstar for more references to mortality and the afterlife and whatever else we might find amid the bright lights and mysterious darkness of Bowie’s space. And right there in the first single “Lazarus,” the very first line he sings is “Look up here, I am in heaven!”

Of course most people think Bowie is not in heaven, but has simply ascended back into space from whence he came, his visit here on Earth complete. I think he’s probably in talks to do the musical score for Andy Kaufman’s eventual return from his decades-long death hoax.

The rest of us mere mortals are left with our parting gift, the masterful 25th and final David Bowie album. And we try to name our top 5 Bowie songs, and we read some more tributes, and a few more rock stars proclaim Bowie as the greatest rock star ever. And a few more “weird” kids who like all types of music start thinking they could be heroes.


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