As of yesterday morning, we are all living in a world without David Bowie, and already the place feels that little more drab and diminished by the knowledge that he’s no longer somewhere out in it. He didn’t leave us empty-handed, though: in lieu of that long-hoped-for return to the stage, Bowie has given us his 27th and final album, ‘Blackstar’, and a performance of an altogether more fascinating sort. When Tony Visconti wrote that his friend’s death was “a work of art,” he wasn’t kidding: ‘Blackstar‘ was always meant to be understood through the prism of Bowie’s death. Consequently, a record that might have sounded oblique and unwelcoming on Friday afternoon hit us all like a slegehammer on Monday morning.
The truth, however, was always out there. Bowie’s absence from the album’s cover was not just unusual but unprecedented, and like the title, it invited all manner of speculation – ‘True Detective’ fans (like me) will probably have made the leap from ‘Blackstar’ to Robert Chambers’ short-story collection ‘The King in Yellow’, which describes the ancient city of Carcosa, “where black stars rise and strange moons circle through the skies.” It might sound like a stretch, but both of those things do appear in Johan Renck’s ‘Blackstar’ video, which revealed the fate of Major Tom, a lifeless spacesuit marooned on a distant world, whose skull – bejewelled, like a catacomb saint’s – becomes the centrepiece of a bizarre religious ceremony, while the rest of him drifts into the blackness of a solar eclipse. The lyrics, meanwhile, not only foreshadow Bowie’s death, but our reaction to it: “Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/ I’m a blackstar.” It’s an oddly muted, matter-of-fact way to imagine your own send-off; almost as though he’s asking us not to make too much of a fuss about it.
Next comes ‘Lazarus’, and an opening line (“Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,”) Bowie must have known the subsequent impact of. The resurrection of Lazarus was symbolic of Christ’s power over death, but Bowie’s power is to turn it into art: “I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen,” he winks, hinting at the big reveal to come. Again, Johan Renck’s accompanying video doesn’t fill in the blanks so much as hammer them home, and ends with Bowie up from his deathbed, working and creating right up until the moment he’s forced back into the armoire and the door closes behind him – a devastating metaphor for the making of the album, and a rare insight into his frame of mind during those final months. It’s an idea that also pops up again on ‘Dollar Days’, which finds him “dying to push their backs against the grain/ And fool them all again and again,” – he wasn’t raging against the dying of the light, so much as scheming in defiance of it.
Other references, of course, are trickier to interpret. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ takes its name from John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy, in which the incestuous affair between siblings Giovanni and Arabella ends with him brandishing her heart on a dagger, and ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ also has some connection to that text – its lyrics mirror certain plot developments. How (or if) any of this relates to Bowie himself is unclear: for all ‘Blackstar’ can feel remarkably candid at times, there are also moments – like ‘Girl Loves Me’, whose lyrics are partly written in the fictional argot of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – where it seeks to impishly misdirect, to obfuscate, to keep the listener on their toes. Bowie was never an easy character to get pin down – his songs were always dense, literary affairs, strewn with ideas, references and allusions – but for the most part, ‘Blackstar’ confronts big questions of legacy and mortality with uncommon directness. On album closer ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, he even signs off with an epitaph as poetic as it is inscrutable: “Seeing more and feeling less/ Saying no but meaning yes/ This is all I ever meant/ That’s the message that I sent.” This is Bowie using the closing track of his final album to give us the last word on his life, his music and What It All Means. His only regret, it seems, is that he wasn’t able to leave us more.
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