David Bowie is dead, but his shadow is a birthmark on the skin of music history that no amount of lasing can eradicate. On Blackstar, his influence has spawned a parody of itself in the final hour, each a mirror held to the other so that only infinity is left regarding itself in an echo chamber of autobiographical impulses. The latter are keys to understanding—or, to be more accurate, misunderstanding—the album’s 41-minute rupture, throughout which listeners are soberly reminded of an obvious fact: we are not David Bowie.
Indeed, what at first seems an antidisestablishmentarian blowing out of the popular candle becomes, via paroxysms of repetition, the opposite—which is to say, a full-body dip of self-awareness into the ocean of cultural artifacts to which he owed his success. As one whose career fed on a staple diet of reinvention, Bowie was by no stretch of canvas an artist who required imminent termination to paint a portrait of his origins. But while his fandom was obsessing itself over the comportments of his physical transformations, beneath his hood an engine of unprecedented horse power was mounting itself in preparation for Blackstar.
Like the album artwork, each song is the first of many interpretive layers. The star fragments along the cover’s bottom edge, for example, spell out B O W I E, but constitute more than a novel orthography. They are the measurement of a snake preparing to bite its own tail.
The title track suggests as much by its elliptical nature—rushing with urgency through its birth pangs, luxuriating in a primal midlife, and returning to form slowed by age and deterioration, all the while sharpening a legacy across grindstones of memory. As throughout the album, the lyrics in this massive incantation are only sustainable when we leave their details alone for what they are: architectural materials whose totality dominates their specificity. Take the opening lines:
In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the center of it all, in the center of it all
Regardless of how one chooses to suss the significance of Ormen or to whom those eyes might belong, what matters is the doubled “In the center of it all,” which as far as I’m concerned is a tactile hinge to the sentences that precede and follow it. Does the candle or do the eyes occupy the center? In asking as much, we bind Bowie’s structure with the glue of curiosity. Instead of adding significant meaning, any further attempts to unmask such words—so far, at least—smack of self-congratulation. In any case, you, dear listener, are the only one whose interpretations matter.
The modality of “Blackstar” visualizes a cross that has been plucked from the center of the Earth and branded by a militant sun. A saxophone solo becomes its incarnate flail, a technology of such masochistic veracity that every note sliding off its tongue must be penned in curses. Or so they will seem to outsiders whose vocabularies have been veiledly tainted by promises of light in a global blackout. Bowie’s throat extends over a banister from a semi-divine outcropping, looking down on mortal creations—music not least among them—and spitting out the occasional leaf in need of binding. All of these come together in the charred book of such central interest in the attendant music video.
Rising strings embody nothing more than a comfort of having been heard, which on this day of reckoning might just as well be any death other than his own. In the eclipse, he crafts simulacra of judgment out of flesh and cultish ink, pulling vocal folds into noodles to be slurped up by the golden dawn. Thus he refracts the song’s title until it tastes like copper.
An intake of breath and expulsion of drums spins the bullet chamber to rest on “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” a song of violence and smeared make-up. The lyrics, though more straightforward than their ancestors, nevertheless use rejection as a womb from which one tensile body emerges, wielding a caduceus of reeds. The nameless whore, whose quicksilver dexterity wrings Bowie’s falsetto dry, takes possession of his sex as if it were collateral damage in the ensuing flight of desperation, souvenir of a restless night. As the rasp of its conquest turns into failure, it bleeds a mixture of cigarette ash and whisky.
When in “Lazarus” Bowie sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he may very well be rehearsing the end of an era, but to my ears the line is more admonition than invitation, a razor blade pulled across the wrist of his fame. The larger point is that no matter what shape his illness might take, there are things of which he can never be deprived. He has transported these things to a place where he can dance as he does in the song’s visual theater. The guitar grunts and crawls its way through the screen with all the portent of an all-seeing eye, while native instruments undermine resolutions of the flesh by their very need for the same.
In light of these parabolic denouements, the noir-ish “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” crashes into the foreground with the urgency of a car chase. It is a singular track not only for being the album’s numerical center, but also a collaborative effort with jazz composer Maria Schneider, whose sense of grandeur, realized in an earlier version with her eponymous big band, nevertheless remains active in this concentrated redux. A shuffling snare thrums a tightrope strung between vertical and horizontal guitar signatures, while an astonishing narrative cuts the sutures of a domestic caesura. The result is a family photograph dipped methodically in acid until only sky is left, hanging above the house where ego has been left to flay itself in defiance of the burn.
The seeming histrionics of “Girl Loves Me” are mostly composed of the Polari slang spoken in 1970s London gay clubs. This rambling yet strangely coherent litany of drunken escapades reaches far into the algae of youth with a self-deprecating squeeze. A play on words with words on play, it treats the stage of recollection as an edible substance. Little flips at the ends of verses—witness the refrain, “Where the f*ck did Monday go?”—are crescendo analyses in miniature, calculating missing time as if it were a source of income. More than ever, these are lyrics I would much rather swallow whole than parse for want of arbitrary mysteries.
If anything is this album’s leitmotif, it is the feel and texture of paper. And in the ambient introduction of “Dollar Days,” one almost hears it blush at the friction of contact. More than any other song of the set, this one drips with utter finality. As an attempt to forget all that Bowie cannot, it is, like our desire to claim every last unanswerable detail, a failure. But as a sketch of terminal cancer, it discloses more than any X-ray ever could.
The nostalgic synth arrangement of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” adds a layer of tissue in the interest of finishing this thing. It presents itself to us as a freshly paved road ready to be driven upon, even as it weeps at the thought of wearing down. Of course he can’t give everything away. Nor should he. For what else would grant us the pleasure of wading through his realism were it dressed in the ideology of perfection?
Here is an album not to be deciphered, for we may never crack its codes with any more assurance than their creator’s in pushing them from his mental cervix. Rather than unpack their secrets, we’d do better to let Bowie unpack ours. I can think of no more appropriate tribute to sprinkle over the ruins of his absence.