An Artful Death: David Bowie’s Blackstar

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Vlad Likh, RU/Noun Project

David Bowie was creating art up until the moment he died, and you could make a solid argument that he’s continued past that.  It is virtually impossible at this moment in time to separate Blackstar, his final album, from its creator’s passing.  And this is a great thing.

Like many Bowie fans (and I’m of the dyed-in-the-wool variety), I anticipated Blackstar’s release, watched the crazy videos, and listened to the album the day it was released.  I loved it, from head to toe, the old school, tongue-in-cheek naughtiness of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” seemed to be a tip of the hat to Hunky Dory era Bowie, “Dollar Days” was sort of a mash-up of the Berlin trilogy era and some of his pop work (but, you know, with jazz horns), and yet it all still sounded about five years ahead of whatever everyone else is doing right now, because David Bowie has always lived in the future.

There were little touchstones to the past, but not a retro moment on it, because, if nothing else, Bowie is a creature of constant reinvention.  And the album rocked.  There were these moments of mortality in the songs, but for someone who’s 69, it was somewhat expected.

About three days later, of course, Bowie died.

Suddenly, the mortality moments became more than moments.  Suddenly the hospital bed video wasn’t just strange and trippy, because we learned that Bowie had been living with a cancer death sentence for the last year and a half.  And told hardly anyone at all.

Suddenly, it became clear that this was David Bowie dealing with his death, and turning it into art, and not wanting the story of his dying to be about him or his disease, but about how he basically converts any damn thing you throw at him into transformation and creation.

The opening title track is nearly ten minutes long, and is a tour de force of electronic flourishes and jazz arrangement, creating tension between uplifting musical lines and lyrics with a plaintive voice reminding “I’m a blackstar.”  Is the black star collapsing into itself?  A star being reborn?  Or is it maybe just someone’s pupils (“At the center of it all your eyes”)?  Only Bowie knows, and he’s vanished into the thing.

The entire album is as musically complex as anything Bowie has ever done, with jazz horns and Fender Rhodes pianos mixing in with modern production while Bowie himself croons invitingly, presiding over the whole affair, never asking for sympathy, only concerned with transformation, the way that he’s always done.  “Girl Loves Me” has lyrics that are almost written in nadsat, the made-up language used in the novel and film A Clockwork Orange, but the vocal performance makes it sound natural, and when he sings “Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?” you kind of want to cheer, because the answer is, of course, no one.

The album closes with the ambitious “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which starts lightheartedly enough (with what sounds like a harmonica), but then the lyric “I know something is very wrong” seems to be Bowie admitting he knows his time is limited.  It’s tough to not hear it that way, and when you hear “Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent,” you can’t help but feel like this is a statement that seems to sum up Bowie’s career, but, as usual, cryptically, and with batshit jazzy Fripp-esque guitar at the end.

Blackstar debuted at #1, Bowie’s first album to do that, which feels strange, but it is, artistically and musically, an incredible cap to an incredible career that’s only ever been about pushing the boundaries of music and art, transforming even the artist’s death itself into something beautiful and strange.

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Bryon Dudley is a writer and musician from Ames. He has written about music and other topics for a number of local publications and blogs. When not playing music and putting out albums with groups such as Strong Like Bear, Liana, and Rockets of Desire, he is helping other Iowa artists record their music at his studio, The Spacement, and releasing it on the Iowa label he co-founded, Nova Labs. He has a tattoo of an aardvark and is adjusting to bifocals.