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Week 9 | Blackstar (2016)

More than two years after its release, I am still thinking of Blackstar as a masterpiece. Its Bowie’s grand finale, a work of art that is much more than a collection of songs. I don’t know how it started in Bowie’s brain, but it became a meditation on his own death. I am writing this a day after seeing, “Avengers: Infinity War,” which has nothing to do with Blackstar except that as a stand-alone work it makes little sense and comes off as staggeringly bleak. That’s the case with this album. Its not immediately catchy and certainly not fun. I’m sure someone, somewhere heard Bowie the first time through Blackstar and subsequently became a fan. But I think it really exists for those who were already fans, who get from it the kind of closure that they could have never expected.

My own experience with Blackstar began with the release of a version of “Sue (Or A Season of Crime)” as part of the 2014 compilation album, “Nothing Has Changed” (I don’t have the album, but downloaded the song at the time). I didn’t like it and feared that Bowie’s next album would be an all-out attempt at jazz, something I had been dreading for years. “Blackstar” does in fact have a heavy jazz influence, but it is not a jazz album. The 2014 version of “Sue” was a possibly intentional misdirection. I like the more accessible version on Blackstar better, and in any case it is less a preview of what the rest of the album is like or about than it was something new to tack on to the latest compilation album that didn’t really give anything away about what would come next.

My next encounter was with the video for the album’s title track. Its an amazing video and amazing song, but my initial reaction was bewilderment. What had I just seen? What was Bowie trying to do? What’s with the dead astronaut and the dancers who appeared to be zombies attempting to try out for a remake of the Bowie’s 1980 “Fashion” video? And why is Bowie appearing with his face bandaged and buttons for eyes? And what’s a Blackstar anyway? I have come to think of this as one of Bowie’s great songs, but it took repeated listening for me to arrive there.

I received the album as a whole a few days before Bowie’s death, which I had no idea was coming. I began my customary saturation listening (which I had been doing with every new Bowie release since 1989). I was growing to like it before waking up on Monday, January 11th to read a news alert that Bowie had died. Given the release of the album, seeing the first words of the alert, “David Bowie,” was not a surprise, but I couldn’t immediately process the next few words. Suddenly the (major) mysteries of the album were explained.

Since others, and indeed I have written much about those mysteries and possible interpretations, I’m not going to do it again here. I am going to comment, though on the album’s place in the arc of Bowie’s catalogue. Bowie seemed very conscious of song order on many of his albums. He intended “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” to start slow with the beginning of “Five Years” and end with a song that could only appear at the end, “Rock and Roll Suicide.” “Diamond Dogs” does not work on shuffle in part because “The Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” only works at the very end. I am pretty sure Bowie intended for “Blackstar” to work the same way, as if “Space Oddity,” as the first song on the album of the same name, with its slow start, was intended all along to be the very beginning of the Bowie experience with “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (the final song on “Blackstar”) meant to be the last (ignoring, of course, Bowie’s actual debut album, “David Bowie,” or the posthumous EP, “No Plan.” It works. With few exceptions, each of Bowie’s albums hint at the next one. “Blackstar” is one of those exceptions, not because, as with, say, “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bowie didn’t seem to be paying attention, or as with “Never Let Me Down” because he just grew frustrated with the direction he was going, but because “Blackstar” was crafted to be the end of the road.

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