The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town.”
â€• William Faulkner,
This weekend, I listened to David Bowie’s just released album Blackstar a lot. In the hours that I whiled away listening to the tracks, I painted a picture in my head of Bowie, one of the vital artists of the past century, being revitalized. The album sounds like something new, an untrodden path, and has an energy that many artists don’t achieve as they age. Then, we all woke up this morning to news that David Bowie had died, days after his 69th birthday, and that Blackstar might have been intended as a farewell note of sorts.
This makes everything about Blackstar different. Instead of a late career “renaissance,” or whatever people would’ve called such a well-crafted, layered album in other circumstances, this music will inevitably be looked at as Bowie’s statement on mortality. To think that Bowie wrote / arranged / recorded this album all while fighting the deteriorating effects of liver cancer is an incredible feat. He created this music with the visage of death a constant companion, and listening to this creation–even a day later–in this light gives it whole other meaning.
There doesn’t seem to be an over-arching frame or story to Blackstar, but death and loss are constant themes throughout. On the opening track, also titled Blackstar, Bowie seems to recount portions of his life and questions about himself as he aged (all within the context of mysterious rituals in the villa of Ormen). The video for Blackstar, too, contains all kinds of stunning, symbolic imagery.
As you progress through the album, lyrically Bowie traverses all kinds of strange places including a couple of references, including a song title, to a 1633 play by John Ford entitled ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a bizarre sounding tragedy about incest, intrigue, and murder. Girl Loves Me is a crazy mixture of Nadsat (the language created by Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange) and Polari (slang used by the gay subculture in England back when that was frowned upon) that echoes the passage of time with the recurring line “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Bowie evokes a feeling of falling with the the wish-laden lyrics of Dollar Days, and really the whole album is built to make you emote. The music, too, seems all about mood. Heavy on jazz and sound in the same way that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is, Bowie built a cadence on the album that seems centered around feeling.
In the light of his passing, the two real heart-breaking numbers are Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away. The latter seems written from the viewpoint of someone facing their mortality, the first lyric being “Look up here, I’m in Heaven.” The video is especially haunting, with morbid imagery of Bowie writing on a sick bed and being closed into a dark, deep sarcophagus of a cabinet.
I Can’t Give Everything Away, lyrically, feels like a farewell letter:
I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal sons
The blackout hearts, the flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
I can’t give everything
I can’t give everything
Intentional or not, the imagery of death seems poignantly clear in those songs. It’s kind of difficult to read to and listen to this album today knowing what we imagine Bowie must have been going through.
There are a lot of people writing about the effect that David Bowie, throughout his career in all of its variations, had on culture and on individual people. He made it really cool to be different, very different, from the people surrounding you. He made it cool to follow your own meandering path wherever it lead you. He experimented with everything from music to movies to fashion to art to gender to relationships and back again, in a way that never felt anything but organic.
Whether or not you ever connected with Bowie based on any of these is something that each individual can answer. With Blackstar, and the timing of his passing, though, David Bowie put his own mark on the one and only thing that truly connects us all, our mortality. To face death with a stoic, calm sense of finality is to be celebrated. But, to look mortality in the face; to question the nature of life and reality in its final hour; to take your eye off of the singularity of nothingness to inhale the beauty and wonder of the abyss. Only the best of us can achieve that kind of introspection and clarity.
David Bowie was singular as an artist and, it seems, as a person. As we all hurdle inexorably towards our own inevitable demise, at least we can rest assured that the one Starman who’d like to meet us all will be along for the ride.