I’ve launched a new weekly radio show. It’s called The Target Shoots Next and you can listen to it every week on Mixcloud. The songs in the show are chosen by a rotating cast of anonymous industry insiders: each week, I ask them what their favourite song or artists is, and they tell me. Maybe it’ll be their newest protégé, the next big thing, an over-hyped wannabe… or maybe it won’t.
The point is: you’ll know what they’re really listening to. So, if you like minor insider industry gossip, playing guessing games, and/or listening to good music, subscribe to the show, and follow me on Twitter to get updates and other info about this moderately dumb one-note radio show.
It’s called The Target Shoots Next, because these anonymous industry bods picking the songs are the targets for manipulation, persuasion, and attention. It’s them who make fundamental decisions about songs and artists, and the twist is that they may – or may not! – actually be into something else entirely.
Their job is to shoot first – to pre-empt public opinion on an artist, music, label, etc. that they work with. But there’s a good-to-middling chance that what they’re actually excited about is something off Astral Weeks, or some old Mr. Fingers 12″ B-side they found on Youtube, or maybe they’re stuck listening to The Low End Theory for the millionth time.
Hence The Target Shoots Next: it seems reasonable to assume that their first priority is the music these insiders are really passionate about, and then what their job dictates. That’s my logic anyway. (And that’s why all suggestions are anonymous.)
I lifted the show’s name from a brilliant music industry documentary called The Target Shoots First by Chris Wilcha. You can watch the documentary here, as well as read some more info and my thoughts on what it all means. (Apart from why the documentary is called The Target Shoots First – answers are welcome.)
Like the documentary, hopefully the songs in the show will shine light onto all the confusion, bullshit, and guesswork that accompanies building a multi-billion dollar business around art, artists, highly subjective opinions, deeply-drawn emotions, and melodies.
And if you’re a Music Biz Insider™ and would like to anonymously share the song that you really like: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently launched a weekly radio show called The Target Shoots Next, which has a playlist chosen by anonymous music industry insiders, and you can read more about here.
I half-inched the name of the show from The Target Shoots First, a brilliant DIY-documentary by Chris Wilcha, which captures the end of the glory days of the old music industry while he worked at Columbia House music club. Somehow, the young Wilcha was allowed to video everything he did – private meetings and all – at his new job. The resulting documentary, and version of the music business it captures, is a window to another time.
Growing up in the UK, we didn’t have Columbia House, but the equivalent was Britannia Music Club, which operated similarly: you were recruited by a friend (who got a free CD for doing so), and then you ordered cheap CDs from a regular catalogue, mailed out every few months. There was a sneaky – and remarkable – catch. You had to order one CD per month, and if you didn’t, the club would send you a CD of its own choosing, and you’d be charged for it.
The documentary is a brilliant peek into the music biz, capturing all the confusion, bullshit, and guesswork that accompanies building a multi-billion dollar business around art, artists, highly subjective opinions, deeply-drawn emotions, and melodies.
The full documentary is embedded above, or you can watch it on Wilcha’s Vimeo page. There are also some more links and reading below.
Here are some good articles and interviews with Wilcha and some of the key players he filmed:
Here is a selection of the things I’ve written recently for the ace music business analysis, data, and news service Music Ally. (I’ll keep this updated as more stuff is published.)
MUSIC/TECH STARTUPS IN 2019: this was fun – I spoke to labels, lawyers and startups about what they all thought of each other, and, well, you can guess the rest.
WMG AND CAPITOL INNOVATION INTERVIEWS: these next two were quite fascinating interviews with the people charged at major labels – slow-moving but powerful beasts – with keeping up with, and incorporating, cutting-edge music-tech into the wider business.
STARTUP FILES: I’m writing a series of analysis and industry-connectivity pieces about new music-tech startups and how they fit in (or otherwise) with the ever-shifting Music Business. Only one of them got me in hot water so far.
MONTAG.WTF was an utterly uncommercial print magazine of weird sci-fi and future-tech that I pitched to Grover.com, and, thanks to the boldness of Thom, their then-CMO, it became real. It was backed for two years, creating six themed online issues, a weekly newsletter, four print runs totalling many thousands of truly beautiful copies, and 14 podcast episodes.
It was made really good by some amazing artwork by an excellent Italian artist called Edo, and an incredibly talented writer, technologist and everything-er, called Kathryn.
Inevitably, MONTAG eventually got canned after various supportive senior staff members moved on, and MONTAG became this weird promo thing from the early days of a startup that had also moved on. We had no KPIs to hit, and no data points to prove our worth, and thus we trudged sadly to the chopping-block.
Now that MONTAG is dead, Grover – once a rare startup with a really cool and interesting creative product that they could promote their business with – is now in a preferred, safer position of being a big startup with lots of money and success.
Anyway: MONTAG was not only great fun to do, it showed that with some bravery, vision, creative thinking and hard work, a business can create something unusual, beautiful and unique to help it stand out from the crowd.
Here’s the best bit: after I left, Kathryn – who is, as I mentioned, pretty brilliant at everything she puts her mind to – trained a recurring neural network on the many hundreds of thousands of words we had written for MONTAG, and now the AI posts a brand new article every week, over on MONTAG.XYZ. The articles are remarkable: almost believable and human, but with staggering injections of weirdness just when you don’t expect it.
This is fascinating and a minor triumph for Kathryn; it’s also possibly the first time an established magazine staff has been wholly replaced by an AI. The MONTAG experiment will now live forever in an endless series of AI-written posts – and that’s something I didn’t expect when we started. But that’s what comes of taking small creative gambles like commissioning MONTAG.
If the past is a foreign country, as L. P. Hartley said, then the nitty-gritty of what happened – the conversations, the opinions, the mindless trivia – live in a dusty cabinet in the furthest corner of a foreign museum. This is the stuff that’s ignored, lost and forgotten by most, but the devoted will work their way down the corridors to peer through the glass just one more time.
This is nostalgia.
Nostalgia is revitalising. Or nostalgia is dangerous. Nostalgia is like drinking: a little at the right time can lift the spirits and reconnect your ego with your values, your past joys and triumphs. Too much, too often, is deadly to your vitality, muffling your connection with now, and stifling happiness. That is also nostalgia.
When we look backwards, it’s only natural that we see the landmark events, and skip from one to another to design the simplest story which lets us understand how things happened back then. Life’s too big to stop and sift through all the ins and outs of every conversation that happened.
Or is it?
To extend the tortured museum metaphor, we’re all highly-knowledgable expert curators of a very, very specific niche in the Museum of Everything. Your niche can be whatever you like: the various haircuts sported by J-Hope from BTS,the Automeris subfamily of moths, late Victorian-era Canadian Anglican bishops, the early records by Swedish recording artist Robyn, whatever.
In these areas, we find the chit-chat, the debate, the details, the minutiae, innately fascinating. This is also nostalgia.
True nostalgia is a prism to view a very personal past that reveals the path to our very personal future.
Revelling in the minutiae of your niche, done right, is the good kind of nostalgia. And reader, I indulged.
Feeling slowed down to a crawl by the lumbering weight of an extended period of hard work, I self-prescribed a strategic slice of nostalgia, and bought, for €2.90, the July 1st, 1995 issue of Melody Maker, the deceased UK music weekly newspaper. It came in the post, two days later, in a plastic wrapper. It had never been read. It still smelled, faintly, of new ink.
A reminder: good nostalgia is *niche*. I don’t need to justify this purchase.
The Melody Maker doesn’t mean much to most people any more. A weekly music newspaper that always lingered in the shadow of its more famous rival the NME, the Melody Maker’s wiki page is now a whistle-stop summation of a 75-year publication.
But, every Thursday between the years of about 1995 and 1999, I would walk to school or college a slightly different route, in order to pass a particular newsagent who received their delivery of ‘Makers in the morning, and I’d lift an inky copy off the pile, plop 75p down on the counter, and head to school, reading the first few pages on the way.
(See – that’s a nostalgic passage right there. No mention of the rain that accompanied the walk, no mention of the dreaded rugby game that awaited on Thursday mornings, no teenage angst, nothing. Nostalgia is an escape drug, remember.)
A quick eulogy follows for the Melody Maker.
I guess I chose to read the Melody Maker partly because it wasn’t the NME, and partly because it was a grab-bag of contradictions. It openly criticised the bands that I loved (the scathing review of Oasis’s “What’s The Story…,” ended with the words, “they sound knackered,” and I went out and bought it anyway), yet it still had all the interviews and photos of these same bands that I hankered after, because the paper knew which side their bread was buttered.
Writers like Simon Price, Neil Kulkarni, Everett True et al were outspoken, and disagreed with each other in amusingly colourful language. The articles took every opportunity to divert me from the drudge of the new Meanswe@r single to the visceral thrills of then-emerging music like jungle, “speed garage” and US hip-hop. (The best-reviewed album on 1st July 1995 was Mobb Deep’s brilliant “The Infamous”, an LP that had, until yesterday, escaped my ears for 23 years.)
In short, Melody Maker immediately shaped my teenage years, how I viewed the thing I loved most – music – and, because of that, the rest of my life.
Now, in an age when I receive music news and reviews from a million different drab sources, weekly music newspapers are an antiquity. In 1995, it was one of a small handful of sources for music news: two weekly newspapers, a few monthly mags, and a scattering of trusted radio shows.
Re-reading Melody Maker now reveals the pros and cons of this one-stop shop.
On one hand, everything is in one place, curated by thoughtful experts with strong opinions, and with a remit to keep exploring for me, the reader. It’s funny, informed, and feels true.
On the other hand, where are the unfiltered voices that we now hear loudest of all via social media – those of of the artists and the listeners? Where is the unfettered opportunity for each and every DIY artist to promote themselves on an equal footing without becoming part of the machine?
You can choose which of the above is the “pro” and which is the “con”.
The other thing I learnt by re-reading MM through adult eyes is that it was written with the various communities it served in mind.
It was written not to merely scratch the itch of the new, but to nurture the lives of groups of people, to stretch them, to change them – because that’s how communities work. They revel in a central passion, and mutate and grow. The MM made readers part of one or more of the gangs represented in its pages.
Today, extreme capitalism has won: we’re all atomised from each other, and everything we say or do is expected to be as a lone individual. Caveat Emptor. Doing things for a community – any community – is not de rigeuer. Communities are about togetherness – and fear is more easily monetisable. Social media influencers shilling slim-tummy teas and appetite-suppressant lollipops are not about togetherness.
Yet nostalgia is, above all, a warm feeling of connection to a clique of people who think and feel like us, and allow us to rail against the normies with our mutual fascination of something that’s ours. Nostalgia allows this: it’s safe, it’s already happened, the contemporary details can be parsed and defined. In the right doses, it’s guaranteed pleasure.
And this is where the details become important. My Melody Maker contained gossip, photos, chatter, bickering and tiny nuggets of period info that you can’t find anywhere else. Their importance felt vital on July 1st 1995, but not in the fullness of time: they have been rightly edited from the bigger story of the period.
Except… that they were all utterly fascinating to me when reading them today, and would be to anyone else who’d feel the thrill of discovering the first printed mention of a “new song” by Pulp called “Sorted For E’s And Whizz”, complete with mis-heard lyrics, buried in a brief review of Pulp’s now-famed 1995 Glastonbury set.
Nostalgia is a drug. We shouldn’t have too much. But also: everything in moderation, including moderation. Nostalgia is re-living the excitement of when passions were new. And the excitement felt around new passions is the feeling of nostalgia years before it becomes so.
You’re building your future nostalgia right now without realising which parts you’ll be nostalgic for. In that way, nostalgia is happened today, while you’re *holistically living in the moment*, not just when you’re looking back.
And the excitement of nostalgia really does require people to be excited with, however loosely, however remotely. So where do we go to be nostalgic with our gang today? Social media allows us to shout into the wind in the hope that we’ll connect with people like us, but does it really work?
Social media also shoots new looks, ideas, and bandwagons instantly to every place on earth, and it enforces a worldwide smoothing of cultural foibles. It’s hard to imagine a niche music/social scene like – god help us – Grebo happening now, because it’s easier to define yourself by pushing against a small-town local scene than against the global MOR-cabal.
Social media weaponises nostalgia – but this is not good nostalgia, because good nostalgia is defined by the community that loves Niche Thing X. Nostalgia defined by the gang becomes about an investment of time and money as a consequence. If commerce uses nostalgia as a sales tool, the tail is wagging the dog.
We can reclaim nostalgia for us. But it requires the communities to scrape everything into a pile. Music nostalgia, for instance, is scattered wide across the internet and beyond: tit-bits buried in obscure fan forums; borderline-conspiracy-theory deep-dives shoved into fan-sites that haven’t been updated since 2006; illegal scans of out-of-print books and magazines tweeted and forgotten about; sub-pub-quiz-trivia permanently and uselessly etched in people’s brains.
Everything is out there: the scattered gang members, the desire for a pleasurable wallow, the snippets and tit-bits and chatter, the excitement about springing from our established passions to similar-but-different new ones.
Bringing it together requires treating music and books and movies differently: each item a narrowband channel that encourages wider exploration. The details of the past can be brought around the object – all the trivia described above could be pinned to the song itself; a totem pole of context, of excitement, of nostalgia.
Then the community can rally around the thing they love – and jump into the future, together, confident and fulfilled.
It’s hard to believe that in under a year, MONTAG has blossomed from “weirdo blog that Grover commissioned for reasons that are not yet fully fleshed-out” into “weirdo blog that now has a really good weekly newsletter, a remarkably coherent podcast, and a frankly stunning print edition.”
And while a huge chunk of that is down to the talent of the contributors and artists I have the pleasure of editing, I was really happy to have been able to write some stuff that I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have got away with anywhere else. Such are the joys of being your own editor, I guess.
Here are a few of the Greatest Hits* that I wrote for Issue 1: Together Tomorrow. Click through to read the full thing…
*It’s pronounced with a hard “G”, I don’t care what anyone says
Blog posts that begin with “I’ve not posted for so long because…” are ten-a-penny and all boil down to three main excuses: my job got super busy; I had a baby; I’ve been dealing with some personal stuff.
For me it was, boringly, the former. But now I can breathe again. One of the things that has kept me so busy is being the editor of MONTAG.WTF , the can-you-believe-they-trusted-him-to-launch-it-under-that-name magazine of weird futurist philosophy, oddball sci-fi fiction, and terrified glances at dystopias that the Berlin startup Grover funds.
I’m endlessly grateful that the people at Grover who sign off on things have been so daring and blasé ab out signing off on MONTAG, which has now branched out into a blog, a surprisingly decent podcast, a devastatingly gorgeous print edition, and an actually-rather-good weekly email. Everyone who I’ve been lucky enough to corral into working on MONTAG is brilliant.
One thing that has given me huge pleasure is creating a series of frankly bananas gifs for MONTAG. We aimed for eyebrow-raising writing with lowbrow gifs, and I think we have generally hit that… er… benchmark? Either way, here are some of the gifs I made that I’m most proud of.
Tupac Shakur crotch-thrusting at a Victorian lady from a crystal ball for this piece on VR.
In the new Supersonic documentary, Noel Gallagher reflected that Oasis should have split after their conjoined-twin moment of peak popularity: Knebworth and Be Here Now. He also finally admitted what the rest of us have known for years: the songs Oasis cockily threw away as B-sides should have been used for their third LP instead.
Noel’s right on both fronts. I wondered how things would have panned out had Oasis not released the notorious edifice that masqueraded as Be Here Now.
Use your imaginayyyy-sheeeeeee-uuuurn and jump back to the heady summer of 1997: shortly after Tony strolled into Number 10, and just before Lady Di checked out forever. Here’s what their third, final LP might have been.
For the title, I used a lyric from Don’t Go Away, one of only two Be Here Now tracks that made the cut into this alternative-history LP: Forever… And A Day. (The ellipsis is in there because of Oasis’ habit of dropping wonky punctation into titles.)
Whilst shuffling tracks in and out of contention, I wondered what a third Oasis LP meant in 1997. After (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, after becoming household names and tabloid fodder, after their songs became the rallying call of the ignored majority, and after 4% of the UK applied for tickets to Knebworth.
It turned out that Be Here Now, with cocaine largesse and swagger in the place of tunes, was not what people wanted. In those unusually upbeat and confident times, I think the public simply hankered after more Oasis: a band whose music mirrored those fleeting feelings.
This alternative LP is mainly composed of songs of glory, gumption and grit; songs that howl from the speakers, like Acquiesce. But it also has Noel’s two most touching and tender songs: Talk Tonight and Half The World Away. “Something for the mums,” as a hypothetical full-page Sun review might have tactfully put it.
Appropriately for a band who faced the terrifying might of the UK’s tabloid press and the obliterating power of universal fame head-on, it also has, in Listen Up and It’s Better People, reflective songs that express emotion beyond “let’s fuckin’ ‘ave it!”
Making the Cut
All the songs off the peerless Some Might Say single are on Forever… And A Day. Even though Noel has spent 20 years denying it, Acquiesce is the only Oasis song that addresses the siblings’ oil-and-water relationship. It’s also the only song where they share lead vocal duties, to astonishing and beautiful effect; it was a shoo-in to open the album.
By the way, the Don’t Look Back In Anger and Wonderwall packages of songs are each almost as good as Some Might Say. Imagine how brutally euphoric the band must have felt to release these 12 songs within a year and to happily consign three quarters of them to gather dust as B-sides.
So there’s a strong argument that the (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? singles box set is in actuality the “real” secret third Oasis LP. Minus songs from that album and live versions/covers, this version of the third album would line up like this, and it’d have been pretty great:
Step Out Underneath the Sky Talk Tonight Acquiesce Headshrinker It’s Better People Rockin’ Chair Round Are Way The Swamp Song The Masterplan
And entries from Be Here Now itself? A paltry two songs made it on the lifeboat: I Hope I Think, I Know, and Don’t Go Away. They made it because they are good songs, but mainly because they are unusual as their main intentions were not, apparently, to be over-loud and over-long.
B-Side Here Now?
There are no B-sides from any Be Here Now singles on this LP, simply because they’re really poor. It’s painfully sad how they pale in comparison to the B-sides from the first two Oasis albums.
Oasis had recorded covers as B-sides before, and they either felt appropriate (I Am The Walrus) or wry (the even-better-than-the-original Cum On Feel The Noize). Covering “Heroes” and Street Fighting Man is lazy at best, ego-driven at worst – and they’re utterly disposable.
Stay Young almost made it – it has a lovely Liam vocal – and Going Nowhere was jostling too, due to an uncharacteristically gentle horn section. Ultimately though, both suffer from the same dull, flabby, plodding anonymity that clouds most post-Be Here Now Oasis songs.
The depths plumbed are surprising: Flashbax, from All Around The World’s flip, is just average – lazy lyrics, pacing akin to lichen growth, and the drab chord changes you hear at every open mic night. I Got The Fever is anonymous and, in an act so far beyond absurd that it’s essentially rock ‘n’ roll treachery, it nicks the main lyric from Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight.
Compare the gee’d-up The Fame with Headshrinker (from Some Might Say). The latter is shrill with punk-with-a-capital-P snot and amphetamine; the coked-up Fame is the sound of one big mouth shouting into the void.
Cocaine is one hell of a drug.
But what treasure they buried on B-sides before that descent. Step Out is the great “lost” Oasis song, pulled from What’s The Story at the very last minute, and subsequently hidden on the Don’t Look Back In Anger single.
It’s easy to forget how slipping on an early Oasis song provided the equivalent fizzy-blood rush of the best night out, the thrill of a speeding car, or the skin-bursting pleasure of a last minute goal. Step Out is this feeling, over and over.
Don’t Go Away nails this in simple prose: “Damn my education/ I can’t find the words to say/ With all the things caught in my mind.” The ability to articulate working-class frustration was core to Oasis’ appeal, and Don’t Go Away might have been the last song where they truly captured this feeling.
A note on Headshrinker: it’s included as the “Ringo track” at the end. It’s my list; some things don’t need justifying.
And finally: the Official Anthemic Oasis Album Closer. All Around The World *almost* survived because Oasis had been playing it since 1992 and Oasis lore stated that it was always destined for the third album.
But it’s a dud compared with the gloriously superior Masterplan. If this LP was real, and plonked into nearly a million homes within a week of release, maybe this song would have challenged Champagne Supernova as the arms-around-your-aunty song at weddings all over the UK.
I wonder how Oasis might be considered today if they had left no more than a trio of perfect albums in their wake. Noel says they’d be held up alongside the Beatles. On this evidence, for once his words might not be hyperbole.
Ten songs. 45 minutes. Forever… And A Day. History re-written. Almost perfect.
My Big Mouth is my personal favourite off Be Here Now, if only for the sledgehammer effect of 34(!) overdubbed guitars, but it was painfully cut at the last-minute: it sounds a bit hollow when pressed up next to Noel’s killer B’s and Liam’s sweetest vocals.
This is the first of a trio of blog posts that try and grapple with the quad-headed beer-sloshing Manc-monster that was Oasis; partly because the Oasis documentary, Supersonic, is about to be released, and partly because I’ve been on a tragic nostalgia trip and feel the need to flush out my synapses.
Unlike every book on Oasis I have read or could imagine, the Definitely Maybe 33 ⅓book is deliberately dry, overtly scholarly and entirely — entirely — humour-free. This is an achievement worth dwelling on.
Oasis were a living, breathing smorgasbord of hilariously knuckle-headed rock ’n’ roll escapades: a band, remember, who were once thrown out of Holland before they even stepped off the ferry onto Dutch soil. An argument between Liam and Noel about this incident was so weird and amusing, the recording was released as a single. It got to number 52 in the charts. Even now Noel is now primarily revered for his caution-to-the-wind interviews.
So to ignore all this in order to tell the Oasis story is a bold move. But the dryness has a function for a book that investigates Definitely Maybe from a communitarian perspective. It asserts that Oasis are both a catalyst for, and function of, working class ambition and togetherness. It proposes that Definitely Maybe is one final hurrah of a social group of people in the UK whose voice is now throttled forever.
It turns out that the humourlessness is essential to the book’s success.
(Sometimes the rampantly academic analysis in the 33 ⅓ book leads the argument awry. Do the frequent references to water in the LP’s lyrics hint at a broiling undercurrent of working-class social unrest? Or is it the words of a band – whose lyrics never dug deep in the search for meaning – who happened lived in a notoriously rainy city? HINT: I lived in Manchester for a decade; the year-round drizzle sapped my will and led to dreams of escape, too.)
I’m still not sure if I actually enjoyed the book. It’s not a knockabout laugh-riot. But the parts that caused my to eyes roll also opened them wide, forcing a profound realignment with what Oasis originally meant, before all the chaos and carnage of their runaway success.
And that’s the most important thing about Oasis – what they stood for in the eyes of the people. Not the tunes. The songs were amazing, but they were a vehicle for the point of Oasis.
Oasis meansomething to millions of people. Unlike almost any other cultural phenomenon in the UK, when they arrived fully formed and looking for a fight, they wholly represented those millions of people: their hopes, dreams and disappointments. Oasis connected on a subliminal level to the ignored people who form a huge slice of the UK. Oasis means we can vicariously live our lives as rock stars. Oasis are for people tired of seeing the same people from the same social strata being handed the same glory. Oasis fuel the dreams the rest of us dream.
These dreams – of fucking off from the post-industrial-town council estate and showing the world what they could really do, especially if they were given a skinful of beer, some decent clothes and a baggie of grotty coke – had a unifying message: “we’d show them, if only we had a voice.”
Oasis were that voice. Unless you’ve played darts in a dreary pub full of young men with quasi-mod haircuts, Stone Island parkas and an unerring eagerness for a scrap in the car park, you can’t fully understand Definitely Maybe. Perhaps these same frustrated masses channelled the same exasperation into votes for Brexit, too.
And when you put it like that, not all of Definitely Maybe sounds like much fun. Maybe that’s why the book isn’t either.
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.
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.