Two days before his death, David Bowie released Blackstar, the first Really Important Album of 2016, and the final album of his stunning career. Before he passed in January, the album had been greeted quite positively, being hailed as one of the best things he had done in a long time. Of course, now that the world is mourning the loss of David Bowie, Blackstar isn’t just The Really Good New Bowie Album, it’s Bowie’s Final Statement, and it will inevitably be digested as such. And wow, did the man ever go out on a high note.
Let’s get one thing straight about Blackstar, it’s a really weird album. And I mean that as the highest of compliments. It’s a decidedly avant-garde record that doesn’t sound quite like anything Bowie has done before, though its closest relatives would be 1980’s Scary Monsters And Super Creeps, and 1995’s Outside. Those were dark albums that explored unsettling themes, and so is this one, as mortality is one of its most frequent themes (more on than in a while).
But while Blackstar could be compared to any number of works in the Bowie canon, it will naturally be compared to his penultimate album, 2013’s The Next Day. That was Bowie’s first album in a decade, and was rightfully hailed by critics as a triumph. As strong as that album was, however, Blackstar is a much more apt note for Bowie to go out on. My one complaint with The Next Day is that at times, it couldn’t help but feel like a self-conscious attempt to make a David Bowie Album, probably because it was his first time in the studio for so long. For a man who so rarely repeated himself, it was weird to hear Bowie seemingly attempt to replicate whatever could possibly called The Bowie Sound, even if the material was undeniably strong. Blackstar is a far more satisfying album because it was Bowie once again exploring new worlds. In a way, the fact that Blackstar has no immediate companion in the Bowie canon kind of makes it a quintessential Bowie album.
As we explore the themes on Blackstar, it becomes strikingly obvious that Bowie new his death was imminent, and released this album as his farewell to Planet Earth. The title track is more or less Bowie eulogizing himself, as he states that he’s become a black star, finally burning out once and for all. Then, there’s “Lazarus,” which features this rather harrowing video:
The sight of a partially mummified, decidedly mortal looking Bowie singing “I’m in heaven now” makes it quite obvious that Bowie knew he wasn’t long for this world, and he wanted to give us one last transmission. What I can’t help but wonder is even if Bowie knew he was dying, did he know his death would come so soon after the album’s release? Suppose that Bowie had lived for another three months. Had that been the case been the case, we would have had time to absorb Blackstar simply as a piece of art rather than as David Bowie’s last album. Instead, we could barely get one listen in before we heard the horrifying news, and dusted off our copies of Ziggy Stardust or Low as a tribute to The Man And His Work. After that, we turned to Blackstar to hear what Bowie’s last words for the human race were.
If you take Blackstar simply as a David Bowie album and nothing else, it’s an incredibly rewarding listen, and probably his best work since Scary Monsters. If you take it as his final message to the world, it’s an absolute heartbreaker. Either way, as tragic as Bowie’s death is, we can take comfort in the fact he was making vital music right until the very end. While we can mourn Bowie’s death, we should celebrate the fact that before left, he blew our minds one last time.