The last will and testament usually isn’t read for some time after the deceased’s passing. And so it was for me with David Bowie’s bequest to The Music, which I finally heard nearly nine months after his passing.
I listened to “Blackstar” on the entertainment system of our American Airlines flight returning from Massachusetts Oct. 1, when I couldn’t find a movie or TV program that interested me. I’m glad I did, because it intrigued me enough to download the final album released during the life of one of rock’s most singular artists.
“Blackstar” was recorded while Bowie was suffering from liver cancer, much of it likely after he became terminal with the disease. It was released on his 69th birthday, which occurred two days before his death on Jan. 10.
His illness had not been made public, and the artists that worked with him on the album were not even aware of his condition. The legendary artist’s 25th and final studio album appears to have been a conscious attempt to make a final statement in the face of impending death.
That statement was as bold as many that David Jones — his birth name, changed early on in a 50-plus-year performing career, because there was a Monkee-to-be with much the same handle — in the previous 24 LPs. That starts with the first track, which shares the album’s title, which in turn makes an interesting statement for a hugely successful musician: a black star doesn’t shine? Produces no light?
(Calling it a title tune is a bit of a misnomer, because the album’s title is actually a representation of a black star. Which opens up the possibility that the LP could become, a la Prince, “the album formerly known as.”)
That leadoff number is a nearly-10-minute (it came under that mark because of an iTunes policy) aural experience laced with dark and disturbing lyrical allusions. That’s not surprising for an artist who gave us dystopian visions like “Diamond Dogs,” “Panic in Detroit” and “Ziggy Stardust,” but the specter of death looms over the song.
Bowie allegedly told one of the musicians involved in the project that the title song was about ISIS (another participant denied that, though) and there is a reference to an execution. But there are also what seem to be self-effacing personal statements: “I’m not a rock star,” “I’m not a film star,” and “I am the great I am.”
Was Bowie summing up his career and work in this verse midway through the song “Blackstar”: “How many times does an angel fall?/How many people lie instead of talking tall?/He trod on sacred ground, he cried aloud into the crowd.” And to his death in this one: “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried:/(I’m a blackstar, I'm a blackstar).”
The other cuts aren’t quite as epic, but are nevertheless challenging and interesting. “’Tis Pity She Was a Whore” borrows its title from a 17th century English play (which as I recall from my lit courses wasn’t so much about a professional sex worker), and “Lazarus” of course was a biblical returnee from the dead.
“Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” is about a murder, but also seems to allude to Bowie’s “Young Americans.” “Girl Loves Me” borrows language from “A Clockwork Orange,” the dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess that was turned into a disturbing sci-fi movie by Stanley Kubrick. (That was Kubrick’s followup to “2001: A Space Odyssey” — which title Bowie flipped in his classic song about Major Tom.)
“Dollar Days,” written on the spot during the “Blackstar” recording sessions, ends with the repeated refrain, “I’m trying to/“I’m dying to.” The title of the album’s final track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” sounds like its author is trying to settle accounts as the end nears.
And the first verse of that song, reprised near its end, is indeed ominous: “I know something is very wrong/The pulse returns for prodigal sons/The blackout's hearts with flowered news/With skull designs upon my shoes.” The lyrics of “Blackstar,” like so many written by Bowie over the past half-century, tease the listener and force us to think outside our boxes.
Musically, the album is also interesting. Musicians involved in the work said that Bowie and the others listened a lot to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s music, and the tunes do show rap and hip-hop influences. The band that Bowie used on the album was an experimental jazz group, and that influence also shows.
But there are also flashes of Euro synth pop, and the sound ends up being really hard to pigeonhole. It’s what we’d come to expect from rock’s ultimate shapeshifter, and we can be grateful that Bowie bequeathed us these famous last works and music. If you like the lad insane, I’d recommend it.