The Star and the Starman
Lazarus couldn't die... There is a miracle in that for a species such as ours, one so prone to the whims of chance and disaster, but there is also a profound suffering. As any vampire movie will tell you, the curse of immortality can be exponentially worse than the sweet release of death. When taking in this story, it's important to note that we are seeing it only from the side of those who had a vested interest in Lazarus' continued life, and that their narrative is necessarily colored by their desires. If taken from the other side, what is it that we might learn about the man himself? Might we find a Lazarus who had done all that could be done, had achieved all that he had the stomach for, had grown older than he had ever seen himself growing? Might we find a man who was ready to let go?
★ (Black Star) was released in the first week of 2016, days (almost hours) before the passing of David Bowie. It would be a rookie move to sit here and spout opinions about Bowie as if they've never been espoused by others - when you've been in the limelight for basically 50 years, the law of averages dictates that people will have written nearly everything there is to write. So let's just establish a few easy ground rules that we can agree on before we get into the meat of this thing:
1. Bowie was a groundbreaker. Whether you measure this musically, aesthetically, or culturally, Bowie transcended every norm in a seemingly effortless way, a way that made us question why it hadn't already been done.
2. Bowie was a shapeshifter. He gave us himself, always, but he managed to shine himself through the projectors of different personalities: Ziggy Stardust, Alladin Sane, The Man Who Fell To Earth, The Thin White Duke, Pierrot, The Outsider…and others that I'm purposely leaving off this list for the sake of time. The true sorcery of this disappearing and reappearing act was that he sold every one of his different personas through a commitment that fell just short of 100%, the last bit left over for the man himself. Call it the Method Acting performance of the century, only by someone whose reach went far beyond that of a mere "actor", cracked or otherwise.
3. Bowie was a musical genius. This seems obvious to the point of not needing to be said, but it so formed the bedrock of his artistic identity that it can’t be overstated. Behind his groundbreaking was the need to push music (and other disciplines) into shapes it had never seen before, using geometry that had never before been applied. Underneath the shapeshifting was the insatiable compulsion to deliver new musical styles – as Ziggy Stardust, he gave us glam-rock commentary that used self-awareness as the ultimate costume; as the Thin White Duke, he gave us drugged-out confessions that challenged norms and created new musical horizons. He was a once-in-a-lifetime artistic juggernaut, and he soundtracked nearly half a century by pushing envelopes.
The timeline for ★ was problematic, in terms of judging where the music might fit into the man’s oeuvre. January 8th 2016 proved to be an eventful day, not only was it Bowie’s 69th birthday but the release date of his final album. Only two days later, on January 10th, he shuffled off this mortal coil. Upon hearing the album, I was certain that the one thing I couldn’t do at the time was develop an opinion on it that wasn’t informed by his oh-so-recent death. So for the first year of its existence, I simply listened to it – a rare instance where I only listened and consciously didn’t work to compare and contrast it with his other work beyond the odd knee-jerk reaction here and there. After that first year, I felt that my take on the album was far enough beyond the trauma that I would be able to evaluate it in a way that was more intellectually honest. But I still didn’t feel like I could write about it. That came later. My thoughts about the album still felt a little too inflated, and my distance from Bowie’s older work felt too expansive to traverse in a meaningful way, even if only academic. So I gave it another year. And that brings us to this point in early 2018.
You’re in a windowless room on a planet in the midst of a faltering colonization, underneath a dripping sky where the pinpricks of starlight have been replaced by a constant twilit glow, the product of a black star emitting naught but ultraviolet rays – the only scenery is detritus, the only other people here with you might very well be figments of your overwrought imagination, and a feeling of immense density sucks you to the floor with a force several times that of what you used to call ‘gravity’.
Part of what makes the album so difficult to put into context is that you have to reconcile the songs with the knowledge that Bowie knew he didn’t have very much time. In what has become the stuff of 21st Century legend, Bowie was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2014 – in all likelihood he knew this was his swan song, even though we, the fans, could not have had any idea until later that this was the case. While sharp lyrics abound all over the LP, they cut even deeper with this knowledge – lines like “Look up here / I’m in heaven…I’ll be free” from “Lazarus” take on extraordinary new meaning when they are no longer figurative or symbolic, the resonance is almost too much to calculate, let alone bear. “Dollar Days”’s refrain of “I’m trying to / I’m dying too” is absolutely bursting with poignance.
But the circumstances aren’t all dire – this could be the album where Bowie cut loose the most. Witness “Girl Loves Me” in a moment of glory, its lyrics culled from fictional languages and esoteric slang, delivered in a bouncy sing-song that legitimately makes it feel like a tune from an unknowable-but-impending near future – one can imagine a group of tenement kids skipping along, these made-up words on their lips, a kind of playful magic in the air. Elsewhere, we find the Starman at his most earnest – less 'doom and gloom', more 'last will and testament'. The gorgeous “I Can’t Give Everything Away” exemplifies this: “This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent / I can’t give everything away”. Bowie channels his inner Sinatra to write a “My Way” for the ages, one that nods to his poetry and his artistry as the ending to an album populated by the characters he has slipped into and out of for a lifetime. He provides his own elegy, one that no one else on Earth could have done satisfactorily.
The man has been rambling for hours, or days, and you’ve only just now begun to pick words out of the speech patterns, whether that’s because he is speaking a language you don’t know or because your ability to discern familiar sounds has been compromised by your journey, you can’t say for sure. But occasionally it is clear that he is speaking in a tongue you can’t imagine, “Venny-venny at the cheena!”, some kind of ecstatically aboriginal language that hook-and-ladders its way down your spine – not unpleasant, but unfamiliar enough to be worrisome.
The woman has not yet brought the water.
★ perhaps makes its grandest statements in ways that have nothing to do with words. It’s music is slithery, wet, dark. To embark upon this record is to be transported to a near-unimaginable realm where drum machines carry life-and-death messages in their skittering soundscapes and saxophones not only uplift, but glide in circles through the air creating euphoric Mobius flightlines, endless and radiant. Consider it a credit to Bowie that he stretched boundaries even more on his final work than he arguably had ever done before. Consider it a credit to his longtime on-again-off-again producer Tony Visconti that the final vision becomes as transfixing as it does – disparate tones kaleidoscoping into shapes that feel like something passably normal even though they sound anything but on the surface. On paper, this does not work - one of the melodic bridges in "Lazarus" juxtaposes Bowie's overdubbed voice against strings playing off slinky bass and harp-like synth tones before succumbing again to the main melody comprised of a Middle East-inspired woodwind - there is no formula for this. But ★ doesn’t exist on paper, it exists in an artistic supercollider where particles are smashed together to create new configurations. Through that lens, it only makes sense that new worlds and universes are created routinely – black holes and Einstein-Rosen bridges are par for the course.
Fingers made of thousands of spiders whip back and forth underneath the doorways. The man recounts the story of an astronaut, always speaks in the third person even though it seems likely the story is his own. Tin cans and radio transmissions and monsters and Americans and heroes and on and on… before a final, emphatic untethering from a way of life. Another man, in the story, has died – is about to die? Has come back to life…dropped his phone and become a bluebird – the details make no sense, except you know exactly what he means in a way you can’t articulate. The man is trying…is dying…is among the evergreens. And then you realize…this is it.
The obvious thing is to question how this album stacks up against Bowie’s other work at the end of the day. It’s normal, that is what we do as fans and as humans – we categorize and compare and parse, we flag and we monitor and we classify, we mathematicize and listify our relationships with the artists and music that we love. It also happens to be something that I do compulsively, and it is part of the reason I had to wait this long to delve into it. The roads I could take here are thus: 1) I could make a case for ★ as Bowie’s best album – it would be a good argument, and it might even win over someone who was already on the fence but it probably wouldn't convince non-believers. 2) I could make a case for it to be definitively in the Top-3 or Top-5 (out of 25 studio albums, no mean feat), and have even more success – I think a reasonably high number of Bowie fans would already give it one of those placements anyway. 3) I could forego the ranking thing altogether and pick out all the sonic and lyrical easter eggs from previous albums or Bowie personalities.
All these are perfectly reasonable options, but I think they each miss the point. Given the context it exists in, trying to rank ★ as anything other than an icon bowing out with preternatural levels of grace, sophistication, and self-knowledge seems like a bit of a cop out. A way to digest the work, catalog it, and put it on the shelf. But the record is more than that – it is a prayer, an allegory, a final statement, an aural phantasmagoria, a meditation on temporality, a cry into the unknown, and so much more than any of those things can encapsulate. It is the end of the story for Major Tom, alone on a distant planet. It is the harsh reality of the Duke’s final moments, all the substances finally having caught up. It is Pierrot’s final guffaw sprinkled with the salt from his evaporated tears. Bowie wraps up more than his own story here, he wraps up his art, and the lives of all his characters. As such, it defies being thought of as merely “one of his albums” – in a very real way, it is all of his albums, shattered into pieces and shot into space to be reconstituted into the shape of zen, the shape of an angel, the shape of nothing at all – nothingness as the highest transcendent state.
The Bible's Lazarus could not die. We will never know the facts of his life, or whether he existed at all. We will never know if he approved of the decision to resurrect him. In Bowie, we are given a new Lazarus for a post-modern time. We see his permutations, from first artistic breath to final eye-closing. We have some sense of who the man was and what he represents, but it is overlaid with the knowledge that we can never, could never, truly know him at his core. As Lazarus, his final character, we get the feeling that he is at complete peace with the end of his story. ★ acts as final document and eyewitness, the record of an artist challenging himself to deliver an unclassifiable denouement that would cement his legacy for all time. Our version of Lazarus was loved by most, known by few, and only ever accountable to one. It may be that ★ doesn’t end up in the highest echelon of rock albums, but it won’t be forgotten. And every time we cue it up to listen, we can know that this one resurrection is OK, this brief glimpse of corporeal form is acceptable – for this, Lazarus will come back to us, but only for this.
This article is dedicated to my sister Sadie, without whom it would not exist since the subject is a daunting one to say the least. On the night David died, she and her husband were visiting from out of town. She fell extremely ill and we all thought it was food poisoning, but when the news came out we all knew it had to be something more psychic - she is the biggest Bowie fan I know, and one of the few people in existence who could actually approach his level of genius and influence.