David Bowie’s music resonates with the world more than ever. In the days, weeks, and months following his passing, a chorus of countless voices have shared their tributes to the triumphant artistry of this iconic figure.
In the period of grief and artistic celebration that ensued after Bowie’s death, New Orleans held a memorial parade, New York declared a day in his honor, and a new constellation shaped like a lightning bolt bore Bowie’s name. Amanda Palmer released a tribute album consisting solely of Bowie songs. And, perhaps, most dramatically Lady Gaga performed her moving tribute at the Grammys. Furthermore, classic and obscure Bowie albums were reviewed with perfect scores, countless tribute concerts were held, and Bowie’s music proved even more ubiquitous than before.
One could be forgiven for not clearly remembering what the new album’s title track “Blackstar” sounded like originally, decontextualized from the sad news of the artist’s death. However, it’s worth listening fresh to the whole album and remembering again that it all sounds simply amazing.
The opening title track is one of Bowie’s best works ever. Spooky, jazzy and containing an unexpected song within a song in the middle of it, the music doesn’t so much grab you as it does draw you in to the immersive experience that is David Bowie. The album as a whole was said to be influenced by Kendrick Lamar’s incorporation of jazz, and it’s no surprise that there is such a supreme love for the collection of songs, given Bowie’s consistently creative inclusion of jazz within his unique song structures.
The opening moments of “Blackstar” don’t sound dissimilar to Radiohead, revealing more than anything what an influence he has had on the band. Like some bizarre space traveling variation on a zen prayer, the song takes the listener on a transcendent journey. When, at the song-within-a-song bridge, he sings “something happened on the day he died,” it’s hard not to imagine that this Bowie character may have been more autobiographical than some of his others.
On “Dollar Days” he confides, “I’m dying to,” a lyric that many have interpreted, in hindsight of the events that followed the album’s release, as having the double meaning of “I’m dying, too.” And the theme is consistent. Naming another brilliant track “Lazarus,” Bowie opens it singing, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” These songs are partially laments and there is also an aching beauty to them, mind-opening jazz pieces with longing but lacking self-pity. Entering a world with no possessions, Bowie’s songwriting is at once expansive, reflective and somehow stripped to the emotional core.
There is left a joyous, freeing feeling that Bowie’s character may somehow return to visit us again, and given the outpouring of energy into his music recently, in many ways, it feels as though he already has. Yes, Blackstar is a serious work but also once that pulsates with life, raising the artistic possibilities of what a musician can accomplish at any stage of life. This is an essential listen, for pleasure, for possibility, for comprehending that which is not comprehensible. This is Bowie at his very best.