Saturday 24 March 2018

Bowie says goodbye with a masterpiece

The great starman who fell to earth, David Bowie left us in January but not before he gave us the album of the year

Farewell: Floral tributes left beneath a mural for David Bowie
Farewell: Floral tributes left beneath a mural for David Bowie
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Death. It was emblazoned - almost in defiance at the destiny that awaited him - all over David Bowie's mercurial masterpiece Blackstar, released two days after his death in January, 2016...

"Few albums have ever been subjected to so much exegesis so quickly. Was the central image, coming from the author of Starman and multiple ruminations on stardom, an act of self-erasure?" wrote The Guardian's Dorian Lynskey.

"Look up here, I'm in heaven," he sings on Lazarus. "I've got scars that can't be seen."

"Something happened on the day he dies," he sings on the 10 minute title that opens the album, "Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside."

"Where the fuck did Monday go?" he sings on Girl Loves Me - the lyric presumably a reference to a body-numbing day of chemotherapy.

"Time, he's waiting in the wings," Bowie sings on Time. "He speaks of senseless things/His script is you and me, boys."

The words resonate long after the songs finish. Not just because of the subject matter.

It is also the way Bowie sings them. Bowie gives each word "its weight as if he were Maria Callas in Covent Garden", Alfred Soto wrote in Spin magazine, "his natural inclination to linger and the band's impatience produce genuine tension".

"I'll never see the English evergreens," he sings on Dollar Days. "I'm dying too."

And then on I Can't Give Everything Away - the final track on Blackstar, his 27th studio album - Bowie pronounced as much about the world he was soon to leave behind as his health, thus: "I know something is very wrong."

It seems somehow wrong to live in a world without David Bowie (or for that matter, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Prince).

It seems sadder, stranger still that the man who fell to earth, is now gone from this earth, forever.

Despite its lyrical concerns relating to Bowie's imminent departure from this world - and what Consequence Of Sound's Sasha Geffen referred in her review as "the angst of being forgotten" - this album isn't the black mass it could so easily have been, given all that was going on in Bowie's head, and body.

In actual fact, 1977's Low is a far, far, far more downbeat album. That's what hard drugs, and plenty of them, do to you. (As Bob Dylan sang on Cocaine Blues: "Cocaine all around my brain/Hey baby, better come here quick. This old cocaine about to make me sick.")

Throbbing with ambiguity and ambient, often lunatic grooves, Blackstar is rather upbeat, rather strange, and rather experimental jazz in places.

Bowie once said that, as a young man he couldn't quite decide whether he wanted "to be a rock'n'roll singer or John Coltrane".

It is clearly the latter, as the 69-year-old takes giant steps towards a love supreme of drum'n'bass improv.

It sounds like the kind of oblique dirge/ cryptic classic U2 will make one day.

With Blackstar, the great starman as his final act has swapped self-mythology for self-erasure.

And as he does it, the Brixton-born chameleon shows his absolute and inarguable loathing of heritage rock, right to the end.

Blackstar is nothing like his last album, 2013's Next Day, which in a sense harked back in a carefully calibrated post modern manner - with Heroes-referencing cover and its lyrics referencing the past - to the Bowie of old.

Blackstar is like a big bugger-off to the Bowie nostalgists who wanted him to stay stuck in the past: with this album - his last - it is as if Bowie is saying that in the end there is only death.

Sunday Independent

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