Yesterday evening I started to put together some notes for a short post about David Bowie’s new album Blackstar, released just last week.
Today I find myself writing, with great sadness, a few words about his death.
Like so many who love Bowie’s work I could write thousands of words about his contributions to music, film, fashion, art, technology and much more.
Many other much more adequate tributes will be written over the next few days and weeks about his significance across several cultural fields. Suffice to say it is a measure of his achievement in just one of those spheres, music, that in the space of a few years Bowie wrote one of the greatest pop albums, Hunky Dory, went on to redefine rock music as Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, created a new kind of ‘white soul music’ with Young Americans and Station to Station, opened the way for a new genre of electronic music with his Berlin albums, and shaped post-punk with the classic Scary Monsters.
Blackstar, which will now sadly always have a special significance as his last album, is also one of his best. The title track in particular represents everything that was so strange and compelling about Bowie’s best music.
It has an epic, cinematic quality, taking some 10 minutes to unfold a complex set of musical and lyrical ideas. The song’s elliptical lyrics are interspersed with striking imagery that seems to invite attempts at interpretation, however elusive. There’s been some speculation that this is Bowie’s comment on the rise of ISIS: as the accompanying video indicates, the Blackstar may be the symbol of some kind of fanatical sect. Certainly Bowie has long been an interested observer of fundamentalisms of various kinds. Or perhaps it has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that. The listener is left to decide, or not.
The music is a dense play of textures, keys and tempos, the opening passages driven forward by an ominous drum pattern. But, as in so many Bowie tracks, the atmosphere changes suddenly, the clouds lifting, broken open by luminous ambient chords. The middle section is as lyrical as anything he has written. This ability to juxtapose light and dark, major and minor, is a primary source of the power of Bowie’s best work: he understands that beauty and disfigurement need each other, that light shines most brightly in the context of a surrounding darkness. So much of Bowie’s music is dark-toned, but not without hope: there is a sense that somewhere there is always a sun above the clouds. He brings his painter’s eye for the meaning of colour to his music.
Blackstar is a thorny, complex, challenging album that asks for the listener’s attention. But it closes with two straightforwardly beautiful tracks, as if opening out onto a bright plain after moving through a dark wood. Before today’s news I wouldn’t have wanted to guess what the songs are about. But their valedictory character now seems evident.
I Can’t Give Everything Away includes a musical reference to the plaintive harmonica on A New Career in a New Town, a gentle instrumental from the classic 1977 album Low, Bowie at his most wistful, looking towards some new horizon after a period of turbulence. And Dollar Days includes a repeated refrain that now perhaps seems somewhat less enigmatic than it did to me when I was listening to it only yesterday:
If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to me.
I hope you can see them now David, wherever you are. And thank you for all you have given to so many of us.