Joe Sparrow : Blackstar, Big Exit
I can’t remember the last time I truly dug into an album — straining to understand each word, trying to unlock each decision and quantify every sound — as I have with David Bowie’s Blackstar.
It feels horribly glib to say that death was a marketing masterstroke by Bowie; and yet the album is so carefully constructed to frame the end he knew was coming, that it’s probably not as gauche as it might sound.
After overcoming the shock of his death, any prior analysis of Blackstar immediately evaporated. And then, any shock – from the realisation that the true context had been hidden in plain sight all along – was tempered by a feeling of jarring clarity. The control and gracefulness of the LP, and how it addresses death, was obvious.
Compare Bowie’s end with that of another rock star, Lemmy: both were loved and praised since their death, but only one reached the end still innovating, reaching, gambling. Only one entirely controlled the dialogue around his exit.
Most artists’ later output is unremarkable. Instead, Bowie gilded his reputation by producing an album which dallies with invention in a manner unlike any of his work since the late 70s.
And then there’s the lingering feeling that Blackstar — the album, the media and the message around it — is like a puzzle box: something important sits at its heart. But what is it?
There is a lot in Blackstar that knowingly harks back to 1977’s Low. For me, these echoes of Low make Blackstar’s finality even more beautiful and difficult. Low was the first Bowie LP that I really loved, and it’s still my favourite. On Low, a combination of bizarro pop and startling innovation negate the honky-tonk theatricality that dulled my connection to some of his work.
Aside from sharing an overtly experimental approach, Blackstar’s open connection to Low is intriguing. Warszawa’s synth sounds prop up the woozy Lazarus; an immediately recognisable harmonica hook from Low spikes the gut-wrenching final track I Can’t Give Everything Away.
The harmonica hook is taken from the song which marks the point where Low enters a wholly unexpected state. It initiates the transition from art-pop album to otherworldly soundscape. The song is called A New Career In A New Town.
My neck hairs prickled when the penny finally dropped: Bowie was not simply using his glorious past to frame his present art as on his previous album, he was leveraging meaning from his whole career to frame his future. A new career in a new town.
Whatever lies beyond the end — an afterlife, utter nothingness, anything in between — Bowie is exiting with the nod and a wink of a man comfortable with himself and intrigued by what lies ahead.
As far as a final message goes, Blackstar is almost unbearably beautiful; as a piece of pop music addressing death, it’s an unparalleled statement; as a brazen appraisal of his whole career, it’s breathtaking. His parting gift is a powerful fillip for us all: be fearless, be true to yourself, step into the unknown. I can’t imagine how my approach to life will ever be quite the same now.
I always wanted to meet David Bowie. And in a weird way, after diving into Blackstar, I feel like I have.