Home Music Discography Discography: David Bowie: Blackstar

Discography: David Bowie: Blackstar

You can’t see him on the cover; he isn’t there. This is the first time he isn’t. Or – maybe – this is the first time you really do see him: the many masks reduced (ascended?) to a solitary symbol. A black star on a white field. He was moving in this direction on The Next Day: the “Heroes” mug effaced by a white square, the name of the old album struck through – dropping the irony of its quotation marks for something more urgent, like waking up. It’s odd not seeing his face for the first time. He knew, of course, knew that we would need to get used to it – the void – an absence where once there were eyes looking out and a mouth and ears and hair and all of it recognizable even when he changed it, gave us a new piece of himself. But still, there is a kind of continuity-by-association. After 24 albums, 24 visages distorted or otherwise, you can’t help but look at the cover of Blackstar and say: “That’s David Bowie.”

On January 8, 1935, Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, MS. Twenty-five years later, he was working on a Don Siegel western called Black Star and – as was the whole point of putting Elvis in films like these – went into the studio to record a title song. The film – in which Elvis plays a Texas rancher of mixed white and Kiowa parentage and finds himself trapped between these “two worlds” as conflict arises – would get a new title before release, causing Elvis’s “Black Star” recording to be put on a shelf for 30 years. In the final verse of that song, Elvis sings mournfully over a western guitar, thumping drums and what sounds like a melodica: “One fine day I’ll see that black star/ That black star over my shoulder/ And when I see that old black star/ I’ll know my time, my time has come.”

On January 8, 2016 David Bowie celebrated his 69th birthday and the release of his new album, Blackstar. Two days later he died from the liver cancer he had been diagnosed with 18 months earlier. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer and most frequent collaborator was quoted widely at the time, saying Bowie “always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.”

This is both the easy part and the hard part of reckoning with Bowie’s parting gift. It’s as simple and as complicated as death. That’s what the album is “about” as much as anything – Bowie himself, his looming passage into whatever waits beyond death’s bend. Blackstar is fraught with portents of the artist’s passing, of the hours slipping away: “Look up here, I’m in heaven;” “I know something’s very wrong;” “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Bowie knew horror and humor were twins.

And if you want to get beyond album-as-memento-mori, there’s still plenty to obsess over. “Blackstar” is maybe about ISIS if you believe saxophonist Donny McCaslin – or maybe not if you believe Bowie’s posthumous PR people – but either way the song is leaden with occult imagery. “Lazarus” – from Bowie’s play of the same name – continues the story of Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth. “Girl Loves Me” is sung in a mix of the invented Nadsat language from A Clockwork Orange and the real language of Polari, slang widely used by the gay subculture of mid-century London. Then there’s “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” which impressionistically recounts plot elements from the 17th century play from which “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” takes its name. Clues abound – to what is anyone’s guess.

Then there is the sound of the record. It is inimitably Bowie, and yet unlike any record he ever made. Separated on the Blackstar tracklist, “Sue” and “‘Tis a Pity” are the origin point for the sonic character of the album. Released in 2014 as a single to promote his first career-spanning compilation Nothing Has Changed – and as for that title: “Ain’t that just like me?” as Bowie would sing later – “Sue” was originally recorded with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. As it appears on the compilation, it has a distinctly Weimar flare that wouldn’t be out of place in a Weill/Brecht collaboration. It’s over-the-top but gets under the skin. The version of “‘Tis a Pity” that appeared on the B-side was a demo recorded and performed entirely by Bowie. The song is shrouded in an industrial haze, the vocals sit low in the mix and get swallowed in the harsher passages instrumentation.

These songs are transformed and reworked on Blackstar by the presence of Donny McCaslin’s quartet, most of whom played on the Schneider recording of “Sue,” where they first met Bowie. Jazz had been integral to his life and music since the very beginning, but Bowie had never had a chance to integrate it fully into his music, to take up jazz as he had taken up so many other styles. While the Schneider recording is fantastic on its own, it’s easy to see why Bowie went with a more compact crew of musicians to achieve his desired sound. On Blackstar, Mark Guiliana’s skittering percussion and Tim Lefebvre’s crunchy bass give a panicked urgency to the noir ballad. The album version is almost half the length of the previous one and twice as heavy.

“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” in its final version retains the energy of the demo, but here McCaslin’s sax is given free range where Bowie’s sax was more confined. The track feels ecstatic at times, creating a tension between the lightness achieved by the synths and backing vocals and the dark, sardonic lyrics. Bowie’s voice bridges this gap brilliantly, sounding always on the brink of laughter or tears. Of the song, Bowie said it was like if the Vorticists made rock music. Coupled with “Sue,” there emerges a diptych of interwar chaos – the promise of a future collapsing into an explosion of artistic and technological advancement, doomed nonetheless – that shows the influence of Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu, a much-maligned album that Bowie was on record as liking. The songs are, in a way, a coda to Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, and the sonic source from which the rest of Blackstar flows.

With “Girl Loves Me,” we have maybe the nastiest, most debauched song Bowie ever put on record. A kind of vamp, or a dark counterpart to “Fame,” where the subject of that song has indulged every vice afforded by stardom to find the world devolved into senselessness, able only to bleat about the incongruous passing of Mondays as the present escapes him in a haze. Still, he wonders “Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?” The syrupy chorus can be taken ironically, as a fantasy of this devolving figure – or as an assertion that redemption is possible, even after so much wreckage; that the singer might still be given love even after he has “loved all I’ve needed to love” as he put it once.

The song on which he put it, “Ashes to Ashes,” was the last time anyone heard from Major Tom. There, that utopic figure of “Space Oddity” and ‘60s optimism was revealed to be nothing more than a common junkie – a myth demystified. But freed from mythology, Major Tom can become a deity, as he does in the video for “Blackstar,” which might be seen as the conclusion of the Major Tom trilogy. Encrusted with jewels, the astronaut’s skull is lifted and brought to the center of some occult ritual. Like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun the whole thing appears to take place in a deep future that looks like the past. The only song in Bowie’s discography to which it can compare is “Station to Station,” a similarly lengthy and conceptually rich album-opener. “Blackstar” was originally even longer, with perhaps a whole other movement but had to be cut down due to the arbitrary restrictions placed on iTunes singles in 2016 (hence why it seems to stop and start in the middle of a bar). Even a God can only do so much to combat Silicon Valley.

Techno beats and jazz sax give way to swooping strings and a delicately plucked guitar figure as Bowie sings “Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/ ‘I’m a blackstar!’” It’s a little too perfect in comparison to the modal scales of the earlier section. The video clues us in on this further: Bowie’s blind “Button Eyes” figure steps aside and gives way to Bowie in high-trickster form, overacting the scene, making fun of the earnest sentiment in the lyrics before literally thumbing his nose at the camera as the lyrics turn toward braggadocio. David Bowie is dying, but joke’s on you if you think he can be replaced.

The video for “Blackstar” is important not just because Bowie has always used it as an artistic medium to extend the world and interpretations of his songs, but because – along with the video for “Lazarus,” which serves as a sequel – it’s the last piece of completed art Bowie ever made. “Lazarus” was filmed in November 2015 and Bowie was informed during the shooting that his was a terminal case.

That song goes back to that early recording of “Sue” with Maria Schneider. It was called “Bluebird,” then and was one of two compositions Bowie brought to collaborate on with her. It never got beyond the conceptual stage. One imagines it changed quite a bit between its conception and its appearance on Blackstar – but even if the lyrics stayed the same, their meaning grew more real as the album sessions began. The only song on which Bowie plays guitar – a cosmic crush sliding in between vocal lines – it’s also the distillation of the jazz sound Bowie was after, jettisoning the sprawl of “Blackstar” for slow-build and melodic payoff.

In the video, Bowie hovers above his deathbed – an effect achieved, it seems, by filming him vertically against a wall with the bed propped behind, making the whole thing appear strange in a way that’s hard to put your finger on initially – or, not David Bowie, but Button Eyes, or Thomas Jerome Newton, or David Robert Jones. Bowie, it turns out, is in the wardrobe. Copping the trickster attitude from the “Blackstar” video, Bowie is clearly having fun even as he stands next to his deathbed, swinging his hips as if he were still a young man before turning frantically to a writing desk where he madly scribbles. He wears the skintight, striped body suit from the back cover of Station to Station, positing Blackstar as a final repudiation of The Thin White Duke. It’s as if Bowie is trying to get as much out as he can while he still has control, to tie it all together while still leaving enough to make it worth mulling over. “Everybody knows me now” he sings from the bed, as if his greatest fear has been realized. David Robert Jones is dying, but David Bowie is immortal. In dying, the former will lose control over the latter – and might lose himself in the process.

Two songs close the record, bleeding into each other to make a semi-continuous track. “Dollar Days” humanizes the maniacal, scribbling figure in the “Lazarus” video. Bowie sings, “I’m dying to/ Push their backs against the grain/ And fool them all again and again/ I’m trying to.” Naming the central thesis on which his career has operated is a trick too, though – hiding the grim pun when he sings at the end of the chorus “I’m dying to[o].” This is the only track on the record that didn’t come to the band via demo. McCaslin said, “one day, David just picked up a guitar… he had this little idea, and we just learned it right there in the studio.” The song feels natural, centered on a simple acoustic guitar progression and flowering into McCaslin’s best solo on the album – underscored by a bass that sounds like a ticking clock. The strings ascend and Ben Monder’s guitar climbs the melodic ladder with a tone just on the edge of harsh. A final note resounds before a driving beat arrives from nowhere in the final seconds.

The track that follows, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” contextualizes this beat with a bed of synth and a harmonica solo. There is conflicting information on the origin of this solo. Heard for the first time, its resemblance to Bowie’s harmonica part from the instrumental “A New Career in a New Town” off Low is immediately apparent. But there does not seem to be a definitive answer to whether the melody was directly sampled or if Bowie played it again for the new recording.

It’s meant to be funny, of course, Bowie raising the specter of that older song – treating death as simply a new phase like glam or plastic soul. But the sentiment runs deeper than humor in the context of “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which is the best send-off an artist could hope to give themselves. “Seeing more and feeling less/ Saying no but meaning yes/ This is all I ever meant/ That’s the message that I sent” Bowie croons. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. There were signs to read, “skull designs upon my shoes” as Bowie puts it, but it is up to the listener to find them. After all, he says, “I can’t give everything away.”

It was Bob Dylan who once said he’d packed his songs with so many symbols and figures and referents so that he could keep the scholars busy with them long after he was gone. Or maybe that was James Joyce. Dylan probably stole that line from Joyce, anyway. When James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem – who appears on two Blackstar tracks – first met Bowie he confessed that all the music he made was stolen from Bowie, to which Bowie responded: “You can’t steal from a thief, darling.”

A good thief, like a good magician, knows the power of misdirection. The key to Blackstar lies not in scrying it like a prophecy, or untangling its symbolic knots. What does it mean that Bowie shared a birthday with Elvis? Nothing, really – but that doesn’t mean the fact is insignificant. When Bowie sings the title line of the final song, he fragments it. “I can’t give everything away” becomes “I can’t give everything.” Bowie, at the end, needed to keep something for himself while keeping us entertained. Blackstar isn’t, then, just a death mask, or a puzzle box – even as it is those things, too – but a final assertion of identity, reminding us that behind the songs was a man, after all, one we never really knew. We see him on the cover, not as a face or a body, but as a symbol. An after-image, a negative – like we stared at the sun too long and had to blink the brightness out of our eyes. David Jones took himself back, in the end, so that he could leave us with David Bowie.

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