Marking Time: Blackstar – David Bowie is 69

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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On January 8th 2016 David Bowie will be 69, and his latest album, ★ Blackstar, will be released.

David Bowie Blackstar Vinyl Album cover

Blackstar vinyl album cover

It is all too easy to use hyperbole when describing musicians. ‘Hero’, ‘Legend’, ‘Star’. David Bowie has certainly been called all of these and more. In truth, Bowie, despite his ‘Rock God’ status, was never purely a musician. He has always, really, been a ‘performance artist’; a man so out of his time that he is consistently ahead of everyone else’s. With ★ Blackstar he brings us what is certainly the album of the week; potentially the album of the year; possibly the album of his career.

David Bowie Blackstar

David Bowie | Photo credit: Jimmy King

Released three years to the day after his previous album The Next Day, ★ Blackstar features on its cover art only the eponymous black star icon, and fractions of its shape as a semi-code spelling out ‘BOWIE’. On Bowie’s own website, the album is consistently referred to only by its icon ★. Two tracks – ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ – have been released in advance as videos. On Bowie’s website, director Johan Renck is quoted as saying “One could only dream about collaborating with a mind like that; let alone twice. Intuitive, playful, mysterious and profound… I have no desire to do any more videos knowing the process never ever gets as formidable and fulfilling as this was. I’ve basically touched the sun.” One has to wonder if that final sentence is an inside joke. A black star is a theoretical alternative to the black hole and may or may not be a transitional phase between a collapsing star and a singularity. According to modern general relativity, the initial state of the universe, at the beginning of the Big Bang, was a singularity.

The two videos feature a sinister Bowie persona with bandages wrapped around his head and black buttons where his eyes should be. In ‘Blackstar’, a jewel-encrusted skeleton of a spaceman is apparently worshipped on an alien planet. Hello, Major Tom. We glimpse the skull again, darkened and sitting on a writing desk, in the ‘Lazarus’ video. In a sterile clinic room, the bandaged Bowie sings and is levitated, while another Bowie creeps out of a Narnia-style wardrobe wearing black and sliver clothing reminiscent of his Station to Station period. He scribbles feverishly in a book and then, eventually, all over the desk. The raising of Lazarus was, of course, the final miracle performed by Jesus before his crucifixion, as recounted in the Gospel of John: “Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” (John 11:43-44 NIV)

‘What does it all mean?’, we may ask; but we may as well be putting a similar question to that other reclusive genius with sartorial flair, Willy Wonka … in other words, ‘There’s no earthly way of knowing’.

I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again. I’m trying to. ‘Dollar Days’, Blackstar

I can’t give everything. I can’t give everything away. Seeing more and feeling less. Saying no but meaning less. This is all I ever meant. That’s the message that I sent. ‘I cant give everything away’, Blackstar

Lazarus David Bowie

David Bowie in ‘Lazarus’

Although the album is undoubtedly jazz – despite smatterings of electronica and rock-driven lyrics – the overall effect is something quite different. Bowie has found a strange new formula which transmutes jazz into a rock album format, without compromising either. At 69, the Thin White Duke has discovered a peculiar new groove. It’s uncompromising, sinister, erudite and addictive. In one album of seven songs and two accompanying videos, David Bowie shows us how anti-matter galaxies, space travellers, gods, fools and the darkness inside a wardrobe or under your bed are all the same thing.

Popular music hasn’t been so much fun in a very long time: “I’m a Blackstar.”

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