“Commencing countdown, engines on (five, four, three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (two, one, liftoff)”
There are no American flags on the moon.
The crew of Apollo 11 placed six on the lunar soil. They were symbols, invested with meaning. But they were also cheap flags bought at Sears. After fifty years, harsh ultraviolet rays have bleached them entirely white. All their vexillological meaning is gone, erased by the sun.
David Bowie was like those flags. He seemed to transcend humanity, but he didn’t, he was made of flesh, and in 2016 he died. Four years later, the phrase Dead David Bowie still seems fundamentally and grammatically wrong, like a paradox. He cannot be dead.
Blackstar entered the world two days before Bowie left it. He would have suffered through its recordings, but this can’t be heard in his vocal performances, which are powerful and strong, or his arrangements, which are transcendentally detailed and elaborate, performed by Donny McCaslin’s jazz band.
The most noticeable thing is the musical approach, which is different to anything he tried before. Station to Station might seem like an obvious comparison. There’s a long song at the beginning, and some pop songs at the end. But musically it represents a clean severance with the past. He’s gone longer than the title track, and more literary than “Sue (or in a Season of Crime), and catchier than “I Can’t Give Anything Away”, but this particular fusion of elements feels unique, both within his catalog and outside it.
Blackstar has no nearly rock influences: when electric guitars are heard, they exist as pure tones – a vaccuum cleaner or AC unit could have served the same function. I only place hear distorted guitars is on “Lazarus”, where dirty chords smoulder like hot coals on grass that’s slightly too damp to catch fire.
Instead, Blackstar is an album of jazz, electronica, pop, and perhaps three or four genres that only exist in New York. This ambitious approach is seen most clearly on the nearly 10 minute long “Blackstar”, which is propelled by shuffling snare beats and strings, and sounds both final and uneasy, like a monument built on a crumbling cliff. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” has a deranged energy not unlike the Manic Street Preachers, although without as many layers of guitars. But there’s an element of quasi-improvisational looseness that’s missing from past Bowie classics like Low, which are the result of perfectionism. “Whore” and some of the others sound recorded quickly (I have no idea whether this is actually the case), as though there was a spontaneous energy that Bowie wanted or needed to capture.
The album trails off in quality a little towards the end, and at times Bowie seems a distant presence among the instrumentation. But the great songs truly are great, both for their music and what they portend. Despite his passing, Bowie was a blessed man: he got to write his own legacy. Few encomiums have Blackstar‘s directness and connection to the source.
Earlier, I described the sun as hateful for destroying the flags. But is it really? The flags got there because men put them there. Men who traveled by a rocket powered by compacted algae. Algae that fed upon photosynthesis provided by…the sun. Everything exists as transformation of the sun’s energy. You can’t curse the sun for erasing the past, because it also creates the present. Bowie understood this. He knew that someday he’d be a long dead icon, his humanness erased and forgotten as new days come and new legends get to walk in the light. This was fine. All he could do was try to have the final word.
The Elton John song “Candle in the Wind”, which (after a dead princess and a meretricious rewrite) became the biggest selling single in history, purports to be a memorial of Marilyn Monroe. I always found it disingenuous and creepy. Norma Jeane Mortenson inhabited roles created for her by men all her life, and now here were two more men, asserting their right to write the definitive story of who she really was. Maybe Elton John and Bernie Taupin meant well, but the song makes my skin crawl. Shouldn’t Marilyn Monroe herself be the one writing this song?
Blackstar is exactly that: a self-describing legend who doesn’t need interpretation or reification. Not that people like me don’t try, but we do so at our peril. Bowie has told us exactly who he is here: and if it’s a confusing picture, maybe that was the truth all along. Musically, Blackstar is good and debatably great. But as a final album, it virtually couldn’t have been better. He may have wanted to write more songs, but at least he got to write the last one.