NOT A POPSTAR
by Josh Hurst
Or: Where the Fuck Did Monday Go?
For all his alien affectations, his wrangling of style and trends, his embodiment of artifice and his extensive work in plastic and silicon, David Bowie’s best albums are evocative of something deeply and unmistakably human. They have red blood in their veins. His gift is how he mines timelessness from something as fleeting as fashion. Among singer/songwriters he is unparalleled in how little he fetishizes authenticity, yet the sweet irony of his life’s work is in how much honesty he extracts from playacting.
Low, one of the great David Bowie albums, is evocative of weariness and alienation; it is the sound of estrangement from the self, a kind of reflexive withdrawal that affirms human connection by highlighting its gaping absence. Hunky Dory, another great David Bowie album, chases permanence through identity crises. Scary Monsters might have been a classicist David Bowie album—its character largely defined by how it synthesizes and rearranges sounds and ideas from earlier in his career—but transcends craft-for-its-own-sake by powerfully conjuring the dread power of fear and the insinuation of creeping paranoia. By contrast, The Next Day merely evokes the sound and general feeling of a solid David Bowie album, and as such is but a perfectly respectable exercise in classicism.
It takes just a listen to Blackstar to recognize it as belonging firmly in the former company: Though it has touchstones in the cool ambiance of the Berlin era, the glitchy electronics of Bowie’s 90s work, and some of the good-natured charlatanism that has been his stock in trade at least since Hunky Dory, it doesn’t sound like any Bowie album or era in particular, and neither is it content to evoke the goodwill we might have toward a veteran artist carefully re-drafting his landmarks. Following several more-than-decent “comeback” albums in which Bowie settled into the spirit of craft, Blackstar is an album that reconnects him to his adventurer’s spirit, his zeal for discovery largely untapped since the era of Outside and Earthling.
Defining what it is, exactly, that Blackstar evokes is an altogether more elusive task, a hermeneutic feat clouded considerably by a cruel trick of time: The album was released on the singer’s 69 birthday and for the span of a weekend might have held a very particular meaning, a meaning now all but been erased and overwritten by Bowie’s subsequent passage. Blackstar’s recording and release—relatively brief, perhaps even rushed when compared to the decade of silence preceding The Next Day—came into stark focus, a last will and testament that the artist put to tape even while passing through the terminal stages of cancer. Time changed him in the end, but Bowie didn’t waste time, and Blackstar bears witness to a final burst of creative vision. Though its songs and shadows hold ominous talismans, Easter eggs from beyond the grave that only seem obvious now that he’s gone, Blackstar is not a morbid record, nor one that fetishizes death. Instead, it works through riddles, mind-benders, sleight-of-hand tricks, knowing deceptions, jokes, red herrings, stories that may or may not be as autobiographical as they seem. It’s the last in a long series of cons in which the listener has been happily complicit; the truth of David Bowie was always in theater, never in confession.
Blackstar is startlingly sleek, which is surprising given its origins: The songs here have their roots in Bowie’s Broadway play, in TV soundtrack work, and in Nothing Has Changed, the excellent 2014 retrospective that is now, bittersweetly, definitive. For its hodgepodged sourcing, the album moves with unity of purpose, the streamlined momentum of an intentional song suite. Cagy to the end, Bowie opens with the most demanding and claustrophobic material, the album’s back stretch opening up into more conventional pop craft and balladry. Much of the album is invigorated by a team of new collaborators, most notably an edgy Manhattan jazz group fronted by sax virtuoso Donny McCaslin. (Strangely, this ensemble shares a bassist with Tedeschi-Trucks Band.) Bowie’s jazzmen are merely a quartet, though you wouldn’t know it from the sheer force of their sound; like the great Mingus bands, theirs is a music of many voices, unruly arrangements and rambunctious performances giving the impression of a far more multitudinous group, imbuing Blackstar’s songs with playfulness, menace, and unease.
But what matters most is how the record exists in the present tense; how the record celebrates and even mirrors the life and character of its auteur—not in the manner of some sepia-toned highlights reel, but in the mischief of a visionary who’s equally committed to bidding his audience farewell while also fucking with us just one last time. “Man, she punched me like a dude” is a lyric you can imagine Dylan singing, perhaps, but it would have been on Bringing it All Back Home or Blonde on Blonde, not on Time Out of Mind. Yet that’s the kind of panache Bowie uses to open “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” which opens with a deep breath before exploding into five minutes of sustained kinetics—a driving backbeat, shimmering keyboards, a maelstrom of competing sax players blowing deep blues, and the singer standing at the center of the swirl, his mood playful and reflective in equal measure, his charisma undiminished. The song shares its name with a controversial play from the Jacobean era, and a Vaudevillian sensibility taken from Hunky Dory but transplanted into a manic underground jazz club. The lyric is a tease: The narrator remembers an encounter he had back during war times—“’Tis my fate, I suppose”—and its general sense of looking back and taking stock is the only part of it that easily scans as autobiography.
But then what is one to make is “Blackstar,” a song that is either about ISIS or Elvis Presley, depending on who you ask? The songs opens with scene-setting sound effects decidedly more exotic than Low’s cool descent into Warszawa, and the listener is lowered down into the “villa or Ormen” at what seems to be a public stoning—or is it a crucifixion? There’s something sinister here, but as the camera pans out our hero bursts forth from the grave—a marked man; a bad omen; a ticking time bomb; a black star. It’s an opera in miniature, and one of Bowie’s masterpieces: Over ten minutes it twists and contorts itself enough times to be a mirror to his own chameleon-like body of work, even as it finds him adopting poses altogether new and distinct. The saxophone—Bowie’s first instrument, and the emotional straight man to the more manic voices in his head—is there at the execution, bowed down in mourning; space alien effects whisk the song to somewhere else, and a bit of free jazz dissonance and skittering beats recast the sax as the embodiment of swing and swagger. In its resurrection, the song becomes something more lifelike and emotionally available than any of Station to Station’s plastic soul. The central section of the song plays like an inverted personality crisis; Bowie spent his career chasing one persona after another, but the narrator of this song knows exactly what he is—a man born to die—and everything he is not: “I’m a Blackstar/ I’m not a film star/ I’m a Blackstar/ I’m not a pop star.”
The other obvious signifier of second life is a song called “Lazarus,” released before the album by way of a ghostly music video. The song is floating, spectral, the saxophone returned to its role in lamentation. In the first verse the singer addresses us from Heaven—immortal; by the second verse immortality’s gone to his head. He’s dangerous—nothing left to lose. The song mounts into struggle, and ends in liberation: “Oh, I’ll be free/ Just like that bluebird/ Oh, I’ll be free/ Ain’t that just like me?”
“Dollar Days” floats like a dream, its saxophone prologue almost smooth jazz—worlds apart from the avant screeches and hollers found earlier on the record. Piano, acoustic guitar, and pounding drums carry the song somewhere altogether more dramatic: It’s a magician’s lament, not a plea for the grave to be spared but simply for a chance “to fool them all again,” just one last time. When he sings of his beloved English evergreens, he could be Moses wistfully staring into the Promised Land—knowing he’ll never make it there himself. They might as well be on Mars.
The song is a contortion, and it’s all Bowie’s—but only time itself can claim credit for the brutal inversion of “Girl Loves Me.” “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Bowie sings in the chorus, and for about three days it might have been a song about time slipping through his fingers (as in, is it Tuesday already? Whatever happened to Monday?). But when Bowie died on a Sunday night it became a song about time run out—a Monday that never came, and perhaps was never going to. That cruelty is amplified by the song’s tough, steely demeanor: Its pulsing beat is unrelenting, the cinematic string flourishes are suitably brooding, and the singer reaches deep into his pain and comes out not with self-pity, but with white-hot rage.
“I Can’t Give Everything Away” closes the album with a soulful, spacey ballad—another Bowie masterwork, and another magician’s lament. The lyrics reference departures and homecomings—pain and dysfunction, prodigals returning to the fold—but the chorus refuses to tie things up to neatly; when he tells us he can’t give everything away, he’s not talking about silver and gold, but his smoke and mirrors, the last few tricks up his sleeve. Skittering drums, electric guitars, and that dreamy saxophone carry the song home—explosively; decisively.
The album’s waning moments might as well be a poof of smoke—and then, just like that, our man is vanished. And we’re not sure what we just stood standing in front of us, as real as our own flesh and blood, except that it had the pulse of humanity—a triumph of mind and body in spite of the grave. Greil Marcus, in his book The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs, shares the story of a young Phil Spector penning the song “To Know Him is to Love Him,” its title taken from the etching on a tombstone; dying is an easy thing to celebrate, Spector once said, but what he wanted was music that celebrated the far messier stuff of life. Blackstar may well be remembered as the album of David Bowie’s death, when in fact it is the album of his life—one of them, anyway.
- Stream it on Apple Music.
- Stream it on Spotify.
- Buy it on Amazon.
- Read Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s All Music review.
- Read Neil McCormick’s Telegraph review.
- Read Ryan Dombal’s Pitchfork review.
- Explore The Guardian‘s round-up of the album’s Easter eggs and symbology.