Death is the one inescapable truth of the human condition. So it stands to reason that over the years many of us who are both artists and human have tackled the concept of mortality, and countless times. It’s something that we all talk about, or write about, or sing about, or even make movies about. The reasons why we do so may not always be the same for everyone but there is something cathartic, in a scary way, about being aware of your very own impending doom. Whether we clearly see it coming is seemingly inconsequential to our collective catharsis. Because we know it’s there, waiting for all of us.
But what if you did see it coming? What if you knew exactly when you’d cease to belong on this plain of existence? What would you do?
It’s been nearly a month since the world lost singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and actor David Bowie, a glam-rock titan and an essential building block in today’s pop culture lexicon. And 18 months before he died, he was diagnosed with liver cancer unbeknownst to the public. He had been dying for a long time—and he knew it.
But we didn’t. We saw the same Bowie we had always seen. Strange, distant, unpredictable, and above all else: creating.
A new top-secret Off-Broadway rock musical called Lazarus was being produced, and we knew nothing of it other than Bowie was writing, composing and producing. Then we learned that the title song was off a new full-length album. “Blackstar” he called it, and on the musical’s opening night David Bowie made the final public appearance of his life.
Then, leading up to the release of this new album Blackstar, he released a music video for the title track.
Upon my first watch, I liked it. The video boasted yet another new mode of bizarre, expanding Bowie’s repertoire and was vividly morbid. The song was great, and I presumed it to be some form of occult retrospection on David Bowie’s five-decade spanning career. With his weary lyrical proclamations of being a truly unique icon of his time, or rather a “blackstar,” and pointed self-referential deliveries, it wasn’t a terribly large leap to take. But I did feel there was something missing in the middle of all this. Something that was being kept from the listeners, almost on purpose.
A few more days passed and we got another video, this time for the song “Lazarus,” and shortly after the entire album was out. I booted up Spotify and devoured all seven tracks.
Then, January 10th arrived and everything changed. And it all made sense. We weren’t meant to entirely understand his vision for this album before that day. Whether the album’s tight and ultimately revelatory marketing and release schedule was divine ordination or just another premeditated calculation from Bowie’s genius, we will never really know—but I’m willing to bet anything it’s the latter. While my Twitter was blowing up with mourning fans from all over the world, I went straight back to the album and l played everything, again and again.
The album was making sense now. And it terrified me. Blackstar now stood as a 7-track recursion into the very threshold of death from a man who was standing right there with his art. It was bravery unlike anything I’d ever seen before. David Bowie chose not only to stare his own death in the face, but dared to realize what was coming for him in his music.
Among a few other artists in my experience, legendary hip hop producer J Dilla was able to do something similar with his last album Donuts, on which he produced nearly 30 tracks on his deathbed. But not even Dilla was as thematically confrontational as David Bowie on Blackstar.
His proclamations of being a “blackstar” weren’t just about being unique anymore. The lyric and title became a metaphor for the cancer that was eating him alive from the inside. The image of a fallen astronaut in a deathly landscape from the video, a blatant reference to none other than the career-birthing single Space Oddity, brings to mind that perhaps the mission Major Tom was on was one that would always end in death of his own making. A preternatural parallel drawn with Bowie’s own predicament as he assigns himself all these final art projects. The lyrical parallel is then woven into the latter half of the song, as the music trades doom for glam-rock predilections painfully reminiscent of Bowie’s early shinier space days.
And the production really does shine on this album. Months before its release, Bowie cited Death Grips and Kendrick Lamar as some of his influences on this album—and it shows, albeit in subtle motions. The album’s deep arrangements, full of jazz strings, sax power solos, and dizzyingly tight percussion (line credit for LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy paid off here), were all produced as if trapped within a solid digital fortress along with Bowie’s tired and weary vocalization. It makes for a listening experience that is both challenging and thoroughly entertaining.
As insanely forward as the first track “Blackstar” goes on this album, the following numbers don’t care to hold back either. On the production side, “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is as intense as the lyrics are vulgar. Resembling the musical cacophony of experimental records such as Scott Walker’s 2012 Bisch Bosch, the lyrics recall themes of disastrous misogyny and distraught androgyny, both prevalent over the years in Bowie’s work.
So when the track “Lazarus” comes on you’re left completely unprepared for the imminent. Named after the biblical Lazarus of Bethany who was raised days after his death, the track props up a reanimated David Bowie who observantly sings of his present condition. The condition being not alive anymore. For reasons made obvious, it feels all too real to hear a man crooning from beyond the grave, seemingly in the know that he is, in fact, dead.
The next few tracks continue to take on different aspects of Bowie’s death and how he managed to collide with it so fearlessly. As the album progresses, so does the deterioration of his health, both mental and physical. The lyrics reflect his declining grasp on reality and his loss of sanity. This is brought to a head on the track “Girl Loves Me” with Bowie screaming, “Where the f*** did Monday go?”
The closer on this album can be described, in a lot of ways, as the ultimate closer. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” feels like the very end. A final goodbye from a man who is finally at the end of his wits, and at the end of his artistic energy. He sounds almost comfortable in his tiredness, content with all that he has provided the world during his time and career, and ready to let go of his earthly possessions, his fame, his relevancy, and perhaps even his family.
When it comes down to it, I have no idea what David Bowie was thinking when he did any of this. Because I am unable to fathom the idea of a person being this fearless to begin with. All I can do is listen.
Bowie clearly wanted to set his own experience with death down in stone, so that we can remain more aware of our mortality and may be less afraid when the time comes. Blackstar’s music is an extra-dimensional portal which enables us to vicariously touch death itself. The album spends 41 minutes reasoning that perhaps unawareness of our own mortality is what keeps us from achieving real greatness while we are still breathing. Which brings me back to the question: what will you do when you see death coming?