There’s an important moment that always stuck with me during writer Chuck Klosterman’s interview with LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy at the beginning of the documentary Shut Up And Play The Hits, and I think in light of recent events, it’s important to begin this review by quoting it:
Murphy: “…you know the guy that dressed like he was in the Clash who lived in, say, Louisville. The guy is just like, ‘Everyone here is an idiot I gotta get outta here to where it’s real.’”
Klosterman: “You were that guy? You hated where you were?”
Murphy: “I hated it. I wanted to bomb it. I was like, ‘Man if I lived in London I could see these bands all the time,’ or ‘If I lived in New York I could meet Andy Warhol,’ but here it’s just kids calling kids faggots and stuff like that and it was Hell.”
Klosterman: “I guess a lot of kids feel that way. But you were actually projecting a life in London for yourself. You were constructing in your mind what that would be like and it seemed alien to the life you had.”
Murphy: “It’s like when you think about rock stars and think about, like, David Bowie. He’s from fucking Mars. In my mind, he was from outer space. He’s not a person. This isn’t a person who would, like, wake up and whose foot would hurt because they kicked a couch the night before. What I liked about these guys was I thought they were unattainable, and that the best you could get was to just act like them but you could never be like them. It was impossible. But if you liked Lou Reed you could wear sunglasses and a leather jacket and not talk much, but you could never actually BE that.”
I think these ideas about Bowie and Reed are true for a lot of people. And in my mind I didn’t really think David Bowie could die. And it has a lot to do with what Murphy alludes to in that interview. Within the music and the personas and the celebrity and the fantasy of David Bowie, it all adds up to a man who wasn’t – who COULDN’T – be human. And if he’s not human, how could he die?
In the hours and days following David Bowie’s passing, a lot of essays were written about the man who seemed like he was from outer space, and I think fortunately most of them were written by that guy who dressed like he was in the Clash and needed to get out of Kentucky to get to somewhere real, because that was Bowie’s truest audience. Listening to his newest album Blackstar again after his passing, I’m locked into how much of Bowie truly WAS unattainable and probably always will be. But somehow, it simultaneously feels so undeniably real, and made more real by the fact that we each got to experience it and process it and feel empowered by it. That was the magic of David Bowie.
We needed him as an unattainable man from space who was based more in fantasy and fiction than in reality, because that’s the only way to lay out everything he’s done and believe it was even possible.
I knew the moment I had to scrap my initial Blackstar review to rewrite it after his passing that it would inevitably come off as something of a career retrospective – how could it not? At the very least it would come off as some kind of eulogy written by a music journalist and I guess I made peace with that. But I drew all these conclusions about the kind of review I was going to be writing mostly because Blackstar acts perfectly as a challenging bookend to one of the greatest careers in music. It would be ignorant not to view this as his final public letter to all of us, especially in light of the album’s seemingly random and rushed release push over the last two months, not to mention the number of people who worked on it with him and knew his struggle with cancer was coming to a head. This was an intentional construct meant to capture the final scattered moments of a man’s life. It’s dense, challenging and beautiful, in the same way watching a person experience their final moments of life is all of those things.
It feels appropriate to view Blackstar as the natural companion piece to Bowie’s 2013 comeback album THE NEXT DAY. That album certainly alludes to his self-awareness of his coming end (the opening title track opens with the lyrics “‘Look into my eyes,’ he tells her, ‘I’m gonna say goodbye,’ he says, yeah”), but more than that it was a reminder of Bowie at his most accessible. It was a tightly produced album that featured 14 short, cohesive rock ‘n’ roll tunes, through and through. It had obvious singles and served as an important reminder of why we needed David Bowie back. He ultimately hadn’t lost any of his legendary edge. But Blackstar isn’t any of those things. In fact, it’s the opposite of those things. It’s half the number of songs and opens with the sprawling, nearly 10-minute long fever dream title track, featuring frequent tempo changes, sporadic jazz, sparse interludes, and a whisper through his failing body that announces something important: “I’m a Blackstar.”
In his final moments, David Bowie needed to be remembered as something new. He’d been David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Starman, Aladdin Sane and finally he emerged as Blackstar. And as Blackstar, he covers dizzying sonic landscapes and giant emotional releases. The album feels deeply informed by his Berlin trilogy, songs like “Warszawa” or “Subterraneans” especially, or even some of the moments off of his 2002 return to form, Heathen. And given that he cited Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly as an influence, it’s not hard to hear it somewhere inside the orchestration of songs like “Dollar Days” or “Lazarus.” The reworked “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime),” a standout among standouts, is a furious build to emotional release.
And that’s why Blackstar earns a glowing postmortem review. When I first listened to Blackstar the Friday before his passing, the day it came out, I was impressed. It was a genuinely expansive music experience that I’m not sure I fully understood initially, but thoroughly enjoyed and was impressed by nonetheless. When I listened to it again that day, I remained impressed by the sheer scope of it. At 69, a master was still at the top of his game and all was right with the world. But when I listened to it on Monday morning, just hours after the announcement of his death, the album took on a different kind of feeling. These songs each felt cathartic. Running through the bloodline of each of these tracks was an energy that was hard to explain but easy to accept. For a man that was acutely aware of his legacy and his persona, the construct of his ending seemed all too fitting. Blackstar was a different, more appropriate album in the moments after Bowie died than before – the way I think he meant it to be all along. He lived to make art, and for him to spend his final days making an album through which we are to contextualize his death? It’s one of the greatest feats ever pulled off in music.
The guy dressing like the Clash in Louisville needed Bowie; that’s true. But I think we all secretly needed Bowie. And we needed him as an unattainable man from space who was based more in fantasy and fiction than in reality, because that’s the only way to lay out everything he’s done and believe it was even possible. Blackstar represents an exclamation mark at the end of a very long, magnificent career, and for it to feel both challenging and satisfying is its greatest achievement. RIP David Bowie.