On Sunday, January 10, one of the world’s most beloved and influential artists, David Bowie, passed away. After a lifetime of creative innovation and dedication to music, the artist died at the age of 69. He had been battling liver cancer for 18 months, just enough time for him and his trusted team to create one last masterpiece.
Bowie had been working on a new album, entitled Blackstar, released only two days before his death. The album has a very dismal, eerie feeling to it; from the title—which evokes an astrological Satanic symbolism—to its seemingly meaningless, yet carefully selected imagery. Tony Viscoti, the producer, stated that Blackstar is Bowie’s “parting gift” to fans.
It’s rare that an artist has the opportunity to face their mortality with such a level of clarity. Bowie had been working on this album since the discovery of his cancer and recorded it in just three months.
He knew his death was imminent; yet he was simultaneously aware of the fact that his status as a pop culture icon would, in a way, immortalize him.
This contradiction is explored extensively in the album. “Blackstar,” the opening track, at times seems a twisted celebration of his fame, a well-earned self proclamation of his impressive reputation in the musical world. At the halfway mark, the track transitions from somber, almost occult-like declaration to gleeful narcissism. “You’re a flash in the pan,” he sings. “I’m the great I Am.” This transition will be echoed largely by the album itself, whose later songs retain Bowie’s reflection but carry an ironically cheerful tone.
Meanwhile, “Lazarus” places emphasis on the apparent futility of his life as he approaches its end. The music video, which was released as a teaser for the album in December, features Bowie lying in a hospital bed, a bandage with two beady eyes obscuring his vision. Sickly and writhing he sings, “Oh, I’ll be free… just like that blue bird,” and “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”
In Blackstar, Bowie proves his ability to try something new, with a fair bit of reference and homage to his past career. When he was younger, Bowie had a swagger to his tone and presentation, earning him the title of the “Thin White Duke.”
In his previous album, The Next Day, Bowie could seem at times unaware of his need to adapt with his age, his warbled and weary vocals often contrasting harshly with the lyrics themselves. This time around the artist makes clever use of his aged voice, producing lyrics that are fittingly morbid.
Supporting him is the Donny McCaslin Quartet, Donny himself providing the saxophone accompaniment to one of Bowie’s re-recorded songs, “Sue” (or “In a Season of Crime”). Bowie decided to add a new element to this album, jazz music.
He worked with saxophonist Donny McCaslin to create the upbeat jazz tune behind his dismal vocals. The saxophone is an incredibly fitting addition to many of these songs, and quite possibly a sentimental one as well—it was Bowie’s first instrument.
In many of the tracks, the would-be upbeat jazzy tunes are often distorted into a digital-sounding backdrop for Bowie’s haunting vocals. His voice has progressed, as well. Listening closely you can hear the sickness and aging in his voice, which adds to the tone of the album. Another re-recorded track, “Tis a Pity She Was A Whore,” now opens with his own rasping breathing, a chilling reminder of his poor health.
Blackstar is something of a musical experience. With his parting album, Bowie did not try to delay the inevitable or grasp at some last minute of fame. He was notorious for wrestling with personal issues in his music, such as in “Man Who Sold the World,” where he conveyed what he believed to be the onset of a dissociative disorder. With Blackstar he addressed his fears, anxieties and miraculous career with a record that is both a somber goodbye and a celebration of his life.