On the 8th January 2016 we received a new, dark, experimental Bowie album – his finest in years. It featured the title track Blackstar and Lazarus, released on 19th November and 17th December 2015 respectively, and brand new versions of 2014’s Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) and ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore. Being familiar with over half of the tracks didn’t stop us playing the album repeatedly once it was released, of course, but when the man himself left us just two days later the complexion of this dark masterpiece changed forever.
We’d have been less surprised on the morning of Monday 11th January if you’d told us David Bowie had ascended into the sky or turned into pure energy than that he’d died from some earthly and entirely human ailment. The recent flurry of activity – releasing a new album and also attending the opening night of the Bowie-hit-filled Lazarus musical he’d co-written based The Man Who Fell To Earth (which is set to come to the West End) – constituted his parting gifts and it had become apparent that the dark themes came from his own personal struggles over the last eighteen months.
Heartbreaking lines like “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to” from Dollar Days highlight Bowie’s acute awareness of his situation, and yet Blackstar is an envelope-pushing work. The enormity of his accomplishment whilst battling cancer and facing his own mortality and working through themes of legacy, the nature and pressures of stardom and his own artistic sign off is hard to comprehend. It’s extraordinarily impressive, not to mention inspiring. On Blackstar Bowie teams up with Donny McCaslin’s New York jazz group, but the album takes its cues more from parts of Outside (thankfully without a Pet Shop Boys single mix in sight) Station to Station and Lodger than from the Philadelphia Soul inspired Young Americans, for example.
Bowie has always loved saxophone, an instrument he learned to play as a teenager, and McCaslin is able to bring the intensity required to match Bowie’s parting vision. It’s part 21st century avant garde jazz, evidence Bowie’s finger was on the pulse once again (he met McCaslin whilst working with the Maria Schneider Orchestra in 2014 before artists such as Kamesi Washington brought American jazz back to prominence through collaborations with Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar as well as his own album The Epic in 2015), and part Steve Mackay’s tenor screaming into L.A. Blues as it manages to keep up with Iggy Pop, James Williamson and the Ashetons (if you know your Stooges albums you’ll know that if you don’t go out on a Death Trip – the kind of thing Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide is written about – then there’s no finer sign off than this final track from Fun House). It’s a perfect Bowie formula on paper, and yet as ever with the great man, it’s quintessentially and uniquely Bowie.
The videos for Blackstar and Lazarus add to the album’s impact also, featuring Bowie in an unnerving, ragged domino mask with buttons where eye holes should be. A play on a ‘death mask’ made from a single strip of (mummification?) linen, the thread of the buttons presumably giving him Xs for eyes. We’ll probably be unpicking the pseudo-religious and astrological imagery and disturbed dead Major Tom worship of Blackstar for years to come along with the lyrical content of the entire album. Lazarus meanwhile combines uncomfortable bed-ridden scenes with uplifting moments: “By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king” sings Bowie enthusiastically in the first section without the mask (yet shot in such a way as to suggest we’re seeing him ‘from the other side’), as he places one hand high on his hip and swaggers more like a queen. There’s that wit, that mischief, even whilst dealing with such serious subject matter. “This way, or no way”, he’ll be free.