In his final years David Bowie led a fiercely private life, and so only his family and closest collaborators knew of his battle with cancer.
So news of his death today, just a few days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 26th album, was as jolting as it was terribly sad.
It has also added another layer of meaning to ★ (Blackstar), arguably his most daring record since 1977’s Low.
We got a glimpse of the stylistically ambitious direction Bowie was headed in way back in November 2014, when he unveiled the video for the jazz-inflected ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’, but it wasn’t until late last year that excitement was stoked by the release of the singles ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ – both accompanied by otherworldly, surreal videos.
Now, of course, we know what Bowie knew: this would be his last album, his coda, his final farewell after a career that has spanned five decades.
It seems fitting that Bowie lived long enough to ensure that we were able – if only for a couple of days – to listen to Blackstar as simply a new Bowie album; to evaluate it with the same criteria we apply to any new record.
Like many, I listened to it several times over the weekend, when it sounded like the kind of avant-garde, boundary-pushing creation you might expect from an artist half his age, whether it was the remarkably weird title track, or the mournful saxophone refrain of ‘Lazarus’.
Pleasingly for fans, in its less dramatic moments it also joined the dots with his more recent albums, including 2002’s Heathen and 2013’s surprise comeback The Next Day.
But while the music is richly produced and rewarding, Bowie’s passing has shone an intense new light on the lyrics.
This is most pronounced on ‘Lazarus’, which begins with the line: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”.
Later in the same song, Bowie sings: “This way or no way / You know, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Now ain’t that just like me.”
And on the dreamy album closer, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, there are further cryptic signs that Bowie was keenly aware of his own mortality:
I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal sons
The blackout hearts, the flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
While this forced reinterpretation of Blackstar might feel morbid, it is also surely about an artist trying to influence his own legacy, while he still can.
The title track, for instance, is an exercise in self-definition, with Bowie telling us what he’s not (a film star, a pop star, a white star, a gangstar, a porn star, a wandering star) before settling on his own identity as a ‘Blackstar’.
We can look forward to countless definitions of Bowie’s genius over the coming days and weeks in the media, but none will be as powerful and poignant as his own final musical chapter.
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