1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part 2
David Bowie, Blackstar
It takes four minutes into this album’s title track before the beat drops. Think about that: the first song’s slow, lingering intro outlasts most Top-40 teenybopper singles. Throughout, the syncopated backbeat contrasts with a droning main line, a complete reversal of the usual pop composition structure. This serves two purposes: it presages the entire album’s contemplative, dirge-like structure. And it dares half-committed listeners to trust the artist or piss off.
Not that those four minutes are wasted white noise. Bowie sings, in a manner reminiscent of Gregorian chant, about a strange ritual taking place “In the villa of Orman,” a mythological place where smiling and kneeling go hand-in-hand. The song explains little. But we don’t need much explanation; Bowie sounds clearly like he’s singing somebody’s death knell. No mystery whose. Throughout the album, Bowie is clearly scripting his own upcoming funeral procession.
In the wake of Bowie’s passing, you undoubtedly heard endless repetitions of clips from this album, especially the key images from the video for his track “Lazarus.” You know the one, the images of Bowie lying in a hospital gurney, eyes bandaged, buttons planted like pennies for the boatman. These images, and the sounds accompanying them, are reasonable approximations of this entire album, an exploration of a still-active mind trapped in a slowly failing body.
Like most serious contemporary recording artists, David Bowie often composed recent tracks with one eye oriented toward YouTube. Both advance videos for this album feature that bandaged man. But he exists in different contexts. In “Lazarus,” he’s visibly dying, while ghosts of his past identities, now emaciated and jerky, like withering wind-up men, surround his deathbed. He’s clearly struggling to put his past to rest, and not necessarily succeeding.
The other advance video single, “Blackstar,” features a strange funeral ritual, making explicit what’s only implied in the lyrics (“In the day of execution, only women kneel and smile”). Except the women, who have tails and apparently live under a permanent eclipse, are burying a skeleton in an Apollo astronaut suit. At the far end of his career, Bowie is apparently, at last, giving Major Tom the burial his career-launching single always denied.
Occasional Classic Rock Radio staples like “Space Oddity” or “Changes” notwithstanding, David Bowie’s music, in the main, has never been particularly approachable. He distrusted easy acclaim. Here, too, he buries tracks that could have earned him cheap radio airplay. Tracks like “Girl Loves Me” or “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which could’ve been Modern Rock chart hits, Bowie chose instead to conceal as deep album cuts. Even dying, he didn’t want mere applause.
Despite shifting tones, and complicated lyrical themes, this album sounds like a piece. The lead instruments throughout appear to be saxophone and electric bass, bolstered by strings (probably on synthesizer) and a guitar so understated, it’s almost not there, giving this album overall a jazz-like sound. Maybe that’s the point. Like Miles Davis, this album has in inscrutable, Miles Davis-like texture that prevents listening with only one ear.
Like Miles, Bowie’s musical epiphanies happen between the notes. Sometimes that involves his explosive lyrics, like on tracks like “’Tis Pity She Was a Whore” or “Sue (or In a Season of Crime),” probably the only two songs where it’s possible to say they’re “about” something. Other lyrics—“Dollar Days” springs most immediately to mind, alongside the two singles—have less an object than a theme, which we uncover only by immersing ourselves in Bowie’s journey.
And what a journey. As “Blackstar” involves planning his own burial, “Sue” implies burying somebody else, a loved one who… what? With the references to x-rays and tests, I thought perhaps she was dying, an impression bolstered by references to kissing her face and pushing her beneath the weeds. But what’s this about having a son and atonement? Is Sue feeling guilty about an abortion? Then I realized, don’t read it linearly. It’s probably about a miscarriage.
That’s consistent with this album’s entire arc. Meaning comes incrementally, and I”m sure I haven’t savvied everything implicit in Bowie’s complicated lyrics. He struggles with imminent mortality, with facing a God he hasn’t pinned down. (Like George Harrison, Bowie’s lifelong spiritual struggle is heavily documented.) Bowie’s lyrics cite “heaven,” “the great I Am,” and other references to a God he doesn’t quite believe in.
This isn’t fun-time party music. It absolutely demands commitment to the journey. But listeners willing to participate will find an album that lingers, that changes your brain slowly, like Bowie, always evolving.