Cold, colorless, menacing in its bare simplicity, the jet-black five-pointed emblem that stands at the front of David Bowie’s Blackstar refuses, unshakably, to hint at what lies inside. This colossal, cheerless star marks the first time in Bowie’s oeuvre of twenty-five records that the artist has not been featured, dead center and swathed by the latest persona he has forged, on an album cover. And almost always, it has been these covers that have held the key to the sounds that sway, croon, crash, wail, or murmur underneath: the unabashed return to and defacement of the past with The Next Day; the skyward, contemplative, glowing eyes of Bowie’s most forthright record, Heathen; the sad clown turned away from his own, more glamorous shadow on the cover of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps); the unresponsive, apathetic profile gaze of a fractured soul in Low, and on and on it goes, back to that first album of a boy just looking out to you, searching for himself, not yet the David Bowie that the cover attests to him being.
Bowie, as challenging an artist as ever, as eager as it gets when it comes to teasing his listeners with hints awash in obscurities, has nevertheless always made the first move when it’s come to holding open the door into his world. And there, as you move inside, he melts away, leaving clueless lodgers to make sense of their stay in that foreign land. Nothing is ever as it seems in Bowie’s world; a song like “Heroes” can be deciphered as a cheerful celebration just as it can be read as a pitiful attempt to grasp at something already on the brink of crumbling; or the songs of Low can be gazed into with political, Cold War eyes or pondered over as a continuing descent further into gloom.
However, if one follows Bowie’s hints closely – the faces of his personae on those album covers the greatest of all hints – one can at least work out the mood that the artist strives to strike with each record; the sole, overarching context offered by Bowie with which the songs inside can harmoniously and constantly call back towards, the one clue with which you could walk inside. From the sleeve, one can at least partially deduce that Low is concerned with despair, “Heroes” with uncertainty, Ziggy Stardust with alienation, Aladdin Sane with madness, and The Next Day with confinement at the hands of an inescapable legacy. But what is Blackstar – featureless as it is, stony-hearted, stripped of all feeling with that stark black emblem replacing the ever-changing but ever-present face of Bowie?
In hindsight, it is all too painless (after the pain it caused) to declare that Blackstar was about death all along and nothing more, with traces of it sprinkled throughout each song, its essential message tucked away from sight until the death knell of a Sunday morning and the answer-seeking ruminations of the day after. Yet, although the death of David Bowie will forever define Blackstar – from the roars of Lazarus reaching out towards release, to Dollar Days’ struggle with impermanence, and I Can’t Give Everything Away’s tranquil acceptance of a life lived and passed – it is just too simplistic to consecrate the final record of a mythmaker as complex as Bowie with the avowal that it was merely the final testament of a dying man.
Blackstar is indeed about death, its emblem so fittingly stylized like an end-mark, but it is not meant as a lament, and nor is it a mere parting gift. Rather, it is with this record that Bowie strives to defy death by becoming death before it can become him. The star at the front of this record’s sleeve is indeed just Bowie himself, having undergone his most permanent transformation, having achieved immortality under this final mask, this Blackstar – this “Great I Am” that mocks his other guises in the title-track for being “a flash in the pan.” If death is to possess him soon, Bowie, with characteristic humor, ventures to outsmart the darkness by possessing it first.
The ten-minute opus of the opener that is the title-track, flickering between moods, sonically cheers upon its introduction of the Blackstar as death, the clouds of the song’s hymn-like dirge parting only to bear witness to Bowie coo and croon about death, with the spirit rising and stepping aside and giving way to the new figure at the fore, some entity that transcends the material world; not a gangster, not a film star, pop star, porn star, or marvel star, but a “star’s star” – something real as opposed to the superficialities of the characters that Bowie formerly embodied, of the Ziggy Stardusts and the Thin White Dukes and even the David Bowies. Yet, before this star’s star even dares to take his place as the song prophesizes that it will after the man’s demise, Bowie has already appropriated it, has already approached it with cheer and wit, has already made it into the plastic pop star that it despises.
And then, he goes a step further: He makes the Blackstar sing, transforming death into pop, twisting it into parody and caricature, into a “flash in the pan.” ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore and Sue (Or In A Season of Crime), needlessly dark, needlessly chaotic, needlessly sexual and violent, make a fool of this Blackstar. However seriously the artist takes his previous characters, he makes it clear that Blackstar is no different in its plasticity than the rest, and while all the other plastic characters of his oeuvre possess a certain pathos and emotional core, this death-like specter – or better yet, death itself – is one-dimensional and dull, more interesting when it is funny, perhaps unintentionally (as heard on the title-track) than when it is self-serious with its declarations that “This is the war” or its theatricalities of “Sue, goodbye!”
Between these two songs of death creeps the very human Lazarus, charged with moxie and almost urging the two one-dimensional flanks of death to come and embrace it from both sides. “This way or no way,” its fearless narrator declares, “You know I’ll be free – just like that bluebird.” There is nothing that this dreary Blackstar can take from him that he hasn’t lost already; the dying narrator has already had his drama in this world. Even if death comes, it cannot do him harm, not because he knows that he will rise again like Lazarus, but because he has seen into the boring eyes of death and has seen that it can do him no real harm. No war, no violence. Just freedom. “Oh, I’ll be free. Ain’t that just like me?” he sings, laughingly.
Lazarus, alongside Dollar Days and I Can’t Give Everything Away mark those rare moments when Bowie sheds persona to offer bits of himself to the narrative; in this case, almost as a means to counter the limited, single-sidedness of death with the significance of what it means to be alive: a range of emotions that go beyond the mere violence, rot, and war of death. It is with a trinity of songs embracing life rather than death that Blackstar ends, and yet, these life-starved, final three tracks of the record, which range, respectively, from youthful remembrance (Girl Loves Me) to restless struggle (Dollar Days) to grudging acceptance (I Can’t Give Everything Away) are much less in number and duration than those giving a voice to death, the latter casting its shadow over everything, despite its inherent dullness.
But considering the simple fact that this album, which contains these desperately life-devoted songs, shares its name with death itself, it becomes clear that what Bowie has done here is that he has subtly injected that featureless Blackstar with a taste of humanity by trapping it against the frenzied and human yearning for life that marks the final minutes of the record (highlighted, especially, by the dying ballad of Dollar Days’ wish to keep hold of life longer, “trying to” and “dying to”).
By forcing this Blackstar amidst these variations of a need to live, Bowie adds to stony-hearted death a tinge of love, remembrance, regret, and wistfulness just as he did with all those other personas that he has donned, humanizing everything that has come his way, from the alien that came to feel so much of earth that he began to crack; to the thin duke’s deadened soul, ravaged by wealth and power, anxiously searching for something more and staunchly, still, refusing to let go; to the clown that wept, to the pop star that tried to escape his fame but couldn’t – and now, as his final, humanized persona: Death, all of a sudden struck by the human spirit, unable to say goodbye, overwhelmed, unexpectedly, with a hopeless lust for life.
Bowie had already channeled death once before, previous to Blackstar, but he had risen from it with ease that time: a decade-long silence, feeling like a performance in itself – hiding from sight the most humanized form that David Bowie ever took – and broken, finally, by the chants of “Here I am, not quite dying.”
But that last time he died, he had died to live again, to return home, to be free from the shackles and the disorders that his art had brought about. This death, however, embodied by this Blackstar – the death that is Blackstar – symbolizes the reverse, when that art, never quite abandoned, returned to deliver him from the one, meddlesome, and inexorable foible of living – mortality; that art allowing him to transform himself into death and embody it before it embodied him, to take its place before it took his, to cry out its name to the crowd before it could cry out its own, and to offer death the one gift that he, as David Bowie, had managed to infuse into everything that he created and came across: a wild-eyed, curious, and boundless hankering for more of this human life.
Blackstar is more than a dying man's last testament. It is a masterful, musical appropriation of death, marking a stunning final transformation for the most exacting modern mythmaker.