In the days after David Bowie's death, I realised that - for all his long career, for all that some of his tracks (the ones linked here, for example) were very significant to me, I actually hadn't heard a great deal of his material at all, and none whatsoever after 1983 with the exception of that embarrassing rock-grandad-fest with Jagger which had as its only saving grace the fact that it was done for charidee.
I decided that - if only to satisfy my curiosity - I should acquaint myself with all of his studio albums, yea even to the Anthony-Newley-soundalike one at the very start. And so (because they are all out there on a certain video site, whether they should be or not), I spent most of last weekend (having decided to give the Great Winter Project™ a swerve for a week to recuperate from whatever it was that felled me a few days before) and two or three evenings this past week listening to them in order.
The one thing which struck me more than anything else was that - even with the material that he was (or might have been) embarrassed about later (that first LP, for example; a mixture of somewhat gormless music hall humour and hippy daydreams) - Bowie was at his most effective and his most engaging when he was following his own instincts. It is no coincidence to my mind that the nadir of his creativity and standing occurred with that trio of albums in the mid-80s which seemed to be little more than desperate lunges after hit-artist status (Bowie himself referred to that time in tones both rueful and waspish as his 'Phil Collins period'). That it needed the unjustly-maligned Tin Machine recordings both to bring his muse back up to speed and to restore something of his credibility showed how low he had gone. That Tin Machine and Tin Machine II were followed by one of his best albums of all, Black Tie, White Noise, is indicative of how far he had managed to climb back in the space of less than five years.
Following his own bent had inevitably led him into strange cul-de-sacs, such as his attempt at being his own King Of Soul on Young Americans, or the oddity of doing a drum'n'bass recording (1997's Eart hl i ng) long after that style had become passť. Along with the lukewarm welcome given to 2003's Reality and the health problems which dogged him thereafter, a decade-long silence was hardly surprising. But, as I said before, even if he wasn't actually doing anything, the fact that he was still there and had the potential to give us something new (and almost certainly off-kilter) was somehow comforting.
And, in 2013, he did so on The Next Day, an album which - though not much more than two-thirds of the way up the Premier League of Bowie releases - regained nearly all of his lost status.
Which brings me to this year, and Blackstar.
This is as radically different an assemblage of tracks as you could hope for even from an out-and-outer such as Bowie. That the strength and commitment shown in both the material and its performance can be ascribed at least in part to the artist's knowledge that his time was just about up doesn't entirely explain the deep drive underlying this album. Certainly its impact gains exponentially from our awareness ex post facto of what Bowie was enduring whilst creating it; but the music to be found on Blackstar would have been as remarkable, as bewildering and as slap-you-around-the-ears powerful even if you knew that the artist was still around and busy working on the follow-up.
There are ways in which Blackstar is almost a summing-up, with the closing track I Can't Give Everything Away reminding us - should we need to be so prodded - that David Bowie could write and perform pop songs deserving of classic status. There's his humour too, never far beneath the surface of that 'serious artist' persona which, to be fair, was one which was far more foisted upon him by others than one which he willingly claimed for himself. And so, Girl Loves Me not only has lyrics containing elements of Burgess' Nadsat, but comes with the beguiling repeated line, "Where the fuck did Monday go?", a question we have all asked of ourselves.
It is, logically enough, the title track which has gathered most attention since it was given its promotional debut in mid-November 2015. An awful lot of verbiage has already been expended on deconstructing (yeccchhh!) the video (you can have a go yourself in a minute, but just hold yourself in check a tad, would you?). Even though his terminal illness was a secret kept zealously by a select few, anyone viewing this video (and the one for Lazarus) could have concluded that, health-wise, things were not (as 'twere) hunky dory in the Bowie corpus. Nonetheless, the one heartbreakingly beautiful thing about his appearance in the video is that a huge and essential dignity shines through his face (even when he's thumbing the nose on said fizzog at...well, who exactly? Death? Angie? Charles Shaar Murray?).
Yes, that probably is the corpse of Major Tom in the spacesuit (note the smiley sticker on it), showing that - ultimately - mother and Peter Schilling notwithstanding, he never made it home. Yes, that does look like the Goblin City from Labyrinth in another act of self-reference. And that good-looking woman has a tail, for fuck sake! But why does Major Tom's decomposing skull end up being presented to a group of young women as if it were a multi-character remake of Salome? Was Tom John The Baptist? And, if so, was Bowie Jesus?
(The Christonuts have had a field day with the video, seeing it as 'blasphemous' and 'Satanic'; but then, that's how they see just about everything which doesn't fit their narrow conception of reality, so who's surprised?)
Bowie no doubt wanted us to keep us guessing, as he did so often. So, let's talk about the music for a moment.
The nearest description I can give it overall is that it sounds like a piece from a modern opera, one of the few areas (or is that 'arias'? Sorry...) which Bowie didn't explore in his career, to the best of my knowledge. The opening section (and the mirroring closing one) are the most operatic, but just short of the halfway point, it morphs into a more conventional pop song, beginning with the heart-wrenching words, "Something happened on the day he died". The 'something' being some sort of entity which cries out variously, "I'm a black star", "I'm not a film star", "I'm not a pop star" whilst Bowie sings with great soul over the top of it, including the wonderful line, "We were born upside-down/Born the wrong way 'round". We then gradually segue into a reprise of the opening section, this time with a more regular drumbeat and a string arrangement (by The Man himself, apparently) with a distinctly middle-eastern vibe, before it all breaks down into a drone and sequence of electronic tones, ending suddenly, like the cutting off of a life.
It is a most remarkable track from a most remarkable album. Is Blackstar the work of a genius? Well, yes, in as much as 'genius' can be defined; David Bowie was often as near as we have ever got to that attribute in the field of rock music. Is it a masterpiece? The distance of time passing alone will give us the answer; so many works in so many of the arts have been hailed as such but have regressed to a more mundane status in the inquisitorial glare of hindsight. As things stand, we are too close in time, too emotionally charged with the significance of this moment, to be able to give a balanced view. Which is as it should be.
One thing which is beyond any doubt already: it's one hell of a way to bow out.
Footnote: After I'd posted this and gone to bed, I remembered that one reason why I talked so much about the title track of Blackstar was because it was my earworm for the afternoon while I was sanding the floor of the karsi. I seldom get contemporary earworms, and I think it would have brought a wry chuckle from the late Mr. Jones had he known.