Thursday, January 14, 2016
David Bowie managed to turn even his death into an artistic act. He last toured in 2003, when he had to cut the Reality tour short due to health issues. He subsequently disappeared from the music scene until 2012’s surprise release of a new record. That record (The Next Day) was good, but not great. Critics and fans were just happy that he was making music again. January 8th of this year he released what we now know was his final record, the daring Blackstar. Bowie then died two days later. He had kept his 18 month struggle with liver cancer a secret from the public (and even many of his close associaties, apparently), so the excitement of a new Bowie record was followed by shock, as most fans like myself were looking forward to yet another career renaissance. He knew that this would be his last record, so a close listen to the lyrics and themes take on new importance with Blackstar. It seems rare (I can’t think of any parallels) that a musical artist gets to make a record knowing that this is his last chance to say what he wants to say. It is probably even rarer that it is done so successfully and so gracefully.
I probably don’t need to write the standard obituary for David Bowie here, as most of you know the important touchstones. If I had a dollar for every time he was called a “chameleon” in a review or article, I would have no need to buy any Powerball tickets. But, the name fits. Bowie was on the vanguard of many different musical trends in his almost five decades in music (I think the mid-80’s through the 90’s was probably the only period where he was more a follower of trends than leader, although even then he still made some worthwhile music). For many artists, Bowie was more influential on them than The Beatles. Duran Duran said that was the case for them.
Bowie is one of the few artists where you can become obsessed with various periods of his career. Most artists would be lucky to have an entire career worthy of fan obsession, but you can dive into Bowie’s glam period, or his Berlin Trilogy, or his pop excursions, or his work in electronic music…and be rewarded just focusing on one of those periods.
Something else rare was that through the vast majority of his career (maybe except for the late 80’s), Bowie was always cool. You never had to apologize for being a Bowie fan. Even when he was in his 50’s, he was making music that younger generations of musicians and fans were following. He knew how to manage his image masterfully. He even knew when (and how) to disappear.
I got onboard with 1983’s Let’s Dance. Blame my age, it was when I was becoming aware of pop music. I still love that record, although by many it is seen as one of his more uncool, least experimental efforts. The five core songs on it (title track, “Modern Love,” “China Girl,” “Cat People,” and “Criminal World”) still stand up as fantastic, varied pop/rock songs in my book. (Also fun that a very out of place Stevie Ray Vaughan plays on them). It was Bowie's commercial peak, which may explain the lack of critical fawning for the album. But the same guy who made Let’s Dance made 1977’s krautrock-loving experimental masterpiece Low? Or the glam touchstone The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? Or quirky folk of Hunky Dory? Or the plastic soul of Young Americans? Or the electronic-drenched Earthling? Yep. Same guy. Or how about releasing Low and ‘Heroes,’ two unquestionable masterpieces, in the same freaking year?!
And with Bowie it was never clear how much of it was sincere or how much of it was a put-on. “It” being whatever genre he happened to be creating or revolutionizing or diving into at the time. To some that has been a turn-off. But I think a certain distance Bowie kept from whatever world he was exploring also allowed him to quickly move on to other exciting musical planets without lingering for too long in one place.
My favorite period? Probably the Berlin Trilogy (especially if you can extend it to the one record previous and the one right after to make it five records: Station to Station, Low, ‘Heroes,’ Lodger, and Scary Monsters).
Anyway, I could go on about remembering Bowie, but I want to talk about his final record, Blackstar. I loved it when I heard it on the day it was released. But his death makes it more significant than just the next Bowie record. It is the last Bowie record. (Although I have no doubt the vaults will be raided for some posthumous releases).
He put together a new band for this last record. Mostly they were young jazz players, and Donny McCaslin’s exciting saxophone playing is all over it. It is a return to his more experimental tendencies, doggedly uncommercial (the title track was released as the first single, and it is ten minutes long, a complex labyrinth of sounds that still holds together, but obviously much too complex and lengthy for radio). Longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti stated that the band were unaware of Bowie’s declining health as they were recording, but that Bowie always intended this record to be his swansong, his “parting gift” to his fans. What a rich gift it is. Knowing it to be his last, he had no reason to compromise at all for commercial considerations. No tour to plan. No follow-up to set up or work on. This was it. Some might fold under that type of pressure (how do you cap off a career spanning four decades? While knowing you are dying while doing it?) But it is also liberating, I imagine.
These lyrics, while typically not exactly straightfoward, contemplate his mortality, saying goodbye and his legacy. The gorgeous Cure-like dirge “Lazarus”: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / Got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now” and “just like that bluebird / oh, I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me.” Or from “Dollar Days”: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me” and “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you / I’m trying to, I’m dying to” (or is it “too”?) What a lovely goodbye the final two tracks are, where “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” segue together. Both are lush, flowing ballads, and the repeated refrain of the last song – “I can’t give everything / I can’t give everything / Away” – could stand as the epitaph for his entire career. Bowie produced thrilling, daring, yet still accessible music, but there was always a bit of mystery, a bit of the opaque. As much as he gave to his music and fans, he still held something back. That for some reason made it even more intriguing. By the way, that is not to say that it is all moody. "Sue (or a Season of Crime)" and "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" rock out a bit.
As a final gift, a final artistic statement where he incorporated his own death into the work (and it must be added that the final two videos for "Blackstar" and "Lazarus" are essential for the entire package as well)…I can’t think of a more enigmatic yet satisfying, from an artistic perspective, way to bow out. I read a great article recently on Bowie’s passing where the author said, only slightly tongue in cheek and I’m paraphrasing, “I can say that the human race was fortunate to share the planet at the same time that Bowie was here.” RIP David Bowie.
Blackstar: **** out of *****