His death came as a blindsiding blow. Only a select few knew that he was battling cancer, and in the first hours after the world learned of David Bowie’s death on January 10, social media exploded with shock and tributes. Even the Vatican tweeted a farewell, citing lyrics from a little song Angela Bowie once called a “gimmick” piece, “Space Oddity.”
But on Friday, January 8, a day that happened to be his birthday—as well as the release date of what would be his final album, Blackstar—Bowie was bashfully beaming in a Facebook photo. The New York Times praised the album, and even published an ill-timed article on what a great moment it was “to be David Bowie.”
The unexpected way in which the Starman departed was just par for the course for the pop chameleon extraordinaire, a maverick of sorts with an unparalleled flair for dramatics, surprise, and mystery. And his final album (which, startlingly, contained allusions to his failing health) may have been his greatest act of theatricality.
Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longtime producer, articulated this interpretation in a Facebook post: “His death was not different from his life—a work of Art. [Bowie] made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.”
David Bowie’s clear affinity for acting helped to distinguish him from his contemporaries, but the training Bowie received from mime artist Lindsay Kemp helped lay the foundation for much of his immersion into bizarre character development and artistic experimentation. (A reason, perhaps, why Bowie donned a flashy Pierrot costume in “Ashes to Ashes” and a stripped-down version in the “Lazarus” music video.)
Bowie’s early ’60s period puts this into perspective. Then performing as Davy Jones, his “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and “I’m Not Losing Sleep” were clearly reminiscent of the Monkees, Peter and Gordon, and the Zombies. In his first, eponymous album, Bowie retains much of that early style. In “Uncle Arthur,” the odd mix of wind instruments evokes a sort of baroque sound, and the clapping, polyrhythms, and dramatic vocals evince a certain character that, although somewhat kitschy, was novel in its blend of genres.
But with the release of The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie takes shape—a combustible, at times high-pitched, wailing vocalist, with an almost androgynous sound. Coupled with the cataclysmic and lyrical playing of Mick Ronson, the effect is otherworldly. “Man Who Sold the World,” is distinct for its catchy intro, but “The Width of a Circle” stands out in its arrangement, vocals, and form. Traces of Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, and the Who can arguably be heard throughout the album, but in a manner that is, again, artful and unique.
And by Hunky Dory, Bowie’s prowess as a storyteller is evident. He ever so slightly dips into that quirky English sound, with songs such as “Kooks” and “Oh! You Pretty Things,” but in a manner that is both playful and tasteful. It’s a diverse album, with Velvet Underground-styled songs like “Queen Bitch” and dramatic ballads such as “Life on Mars?” and “Song for Bob Dylan.” The rhythm in “Oh! You Pretty Things” is reminiscent of some of his earlier cabaret work, but his lyrics are vastly more complex. With Nietzschean themes of resentment between generations, Bowie creates a new genre of understated apocalyptic pop.
“I feel like an actor when I’m onstage, rather than a rock artist,” Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1972, in regards to his glam rock forays as Ziggy. Around the time that he and Angela came to New York in 1971, Bowie started toying with a concept that entailed fashion designer Freddie Burretti miming the part of the messianic alien while Bowie sang in the background. The newly assembled band, Arnold Corns, produced raw cuts of beloved classics such as the hypnotic “Moonage Daydream” and “Hold on to Yourself,” and although the project did not succeed, it served as the backdrop to the sensational success that was the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album.
In the “Berlin” trilogy, Bowie’s voice is deeper, matured, and more suitable to the dramatic and layered ballads of love, social strife, and desperation. These concepts are no better exemplified than by “Fantastic Voyage” and the iconic song “Heroes.”
Bowie’s talents as a dramatist and innovator come to further fruition on Blackstar. Through this album, Bowie creates a mosaic that chronicles his life, explores new territories, and acts as a confessional. The lyrics and video for the title track give some subtle indications of his suffering, which is apparent on “Lazarus”: “Look up here / I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now.”
Somehow, Bowie manages to surpass himself with this album. The music in Blackstar may be his greatest masterpiece. Donny McCaslin’s Quartet, whom Bowie recruited for Blackstar, is the perfect match for the sophisticated material.
The use of flute, sax, bass guitar, and drums, coupled with the preponderance of open fifths in the chanting vocal lines that appear throughout the title track, creates an arrangement that sounds like a bizarre medieval chamber ensemble. But when he sings the soaring “something happened on the day he died” line, the song shifts to a simpler sound that evokes his plastic soul and ’80s pop styles.
In “Lazarus” and even “Girl Loves Me,” he returns to an electronica/alternative rock amalgamation that has an apocalyptic and theatrical aura reminiscent of his work in Station to Station, Low, and Heathen. But the ways in which jazz, funk, and fusion are blended together puts this album in a class of its own.
Ivo van Hove, the director of Bowie’s off-Broadway show Lazarus, described Bowie as “a lion on his deathbed.” Never one to pass up fodder for good material, Bowie remarkably left us with one more fantastic piece to add to his voyage—and what a fantastic voyage it was.