Before its release, David Bowie’s “Blackstar” had been on my radar for quite some time. Since the title track’s video, a 10-minute exercise in what can only be described as borderline occultism, was uploaded onto YouTube, I had been eager for what the album had in store. Eerie and haunting, it sparked a feeling in me that this album, for better or for worse, was going to be different. It really felt at the time that Bowie had redeemed himself from the utterly lackluster releases of the 2000s, and we as a listening audience were witnessing a return to form the likes of which the rock n’ roll industry rarely sees. Bowie seemed to be making a statement: He was not going to wither away into the shadows of obscurity, nor was he going to simply become a monument to past glory.
“Blackstar” was shaping up to be something more avant-garde, more experimental, more Bowie than anything he had released since the 70s. With only the faintest hints of the glam rock that many remember him for, the long single takes hold with strong jazz influences and a saxophone taking lead of the harmony with as much macabre as swagger. The vocals follow with ritualistic chants and an off-kilter refrain of “I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar,” creating a feeling of insecurity that would push away casual listeners but so richly develops the mood that keeps the piece together and would be criminal to leave out.
I couldn’t wait for the album, as I knew right then that it was going to be great. At the day of the release, my hopes had been met. “Blackstar” was different: It is as strange as it is great. I sat there thinking that morning and thought that I had witnessed Lazurus return from the dead. I had figured out the album’s significance. It was so self-aware of its return to form, surely that’s what all of this talk of death meant. Bowie’s career had returned from the grave. I thought for sure that I had cracked the crazy code that Bowie had given us.
And then he died.
The thing about the album is that while it can mesmerize with a darker jazz sound, it ultimately serves as a farewell letter from a man on the brink of death. Bowie wrote “Blackstar” after enduring an 18-month battle with cancer, and the tracks reflect his mindset during those times. I would have loved to review this album without focusing on his death, but as many before me have expressed, the album and his passing go hand-in-hand. From the lamenting “Where the f*** did Monday go?” on “Girl Loves Me,” to the blunt “Look up here, I’m in Heaven” on “Lazarus,” Bowie is telling a story from a point in his life that not many artists choose to release new material.
Only J Dilla’s “Donuts” comes to mind where an artist released an album with the foreknowledge of his imminent demise, and both portray a side of dying that we who aren’t in such a position could never experience otherwise. With traces of melancholy contained within the grace that could be seen throughout his career, “Blackstar” is the swansong that shows even in the face of death, Bowie remains a character that is as magnificent as ever.
Eric Ryan is a second-year student majoring in English. He can be reached at ER821804@wcupa.edu.