Blackstar - the apotheosis of David Bowie's artistry

SPH Brightcove Video
Even before David Bowie's death from cancer was announced, the music legend had secured another Number 1 chart hit in Britain with his new Blackstar album.
A customer picking up a copy of Blackstar, the latest album by David Bowie, on Jan 11, 2016. PHOTO: AFP



4.5 stars

As was his modus operandi, David Bowie demonstrated supreme time management even when it came to his eventual departure.

His swansong 27th album Blackstar was released on his 69th birthday last Friday, along with the portentous video and single for the track Lazarus - a mere two days before he died from liver cancer.

Widely regarded as his most experimental work since 1977's Low, it was the apotheosis of his artistry from one of pop's most influential geniuses.

The choice of Lazarus as a single, in hindsight, was also no coincidence. He penned it for an ongoing eponymous off-Broadway production in New York, which revisits the humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton from the 1963 sci-fi novel The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie played the antihero in the 1976 film adaptation by Nicolas Roeg.

In that respect, it's come full circle: The otherworldly being who had held, thrilled, kissed, killed fans had merely returned to wherever he came from.

Bowie's allusion to the Biblical parable of Lazarus of Bethany also signals death and resurrection, with the video depicting a coffin-like wardrobe and him bandaged and bedridden at a hospital, as he cries, as a final act of release, "Look up here, I'm in heaven…You know I'll be free/Just like that bluebird."

The music is a melancholy but unsentimental piece of nocturne with synths and the lonesome saxophone of Donny McCaslin, whose experimental electro-jazz-acoustic trio provide the sonic backbone for the album.

The title track, initially interpreted by many as his response to the rise of the Islamic State, is now seen as his meditation on one's legacy after death.

It's his desire not to be pigeonholed, as he crafts his ultimate act of transformation, reiterating that he is "not a pop star… not a film star… not a gangster… not a marvel star", but rather "a blackstar".

Tellingly, Blackstar was the only Bowie album that does not feature his likeness, but a solitary black star, the definitive post-image statement.

The song itself is a 10-minute masterclass in sonic arrhythmia, invoking a vaguely Middle Eastern universe as elusive drums weave with serpentine synths.

It sums up his artistic oeuvre, ranging from his carousel of personae to his sojourns into cinema and fantasia. It is a capsule of his contribution to contemporary music too, ranging from post-industrial doom to retro-futurism to jazz-funk. It is sad, intriguing, sprightly, slippery.

The ease with which he bends time can be heard in two wonderfully nimble tracks, 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore and Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime). Inspired by a 17th-century play by dramatist John Ford, these are not polite, folksy tributes, but rather fecund, funky exercises of one's imagination and passion. Days after his death, reading one particular line in the latter track, makes poignant sense: "Sue, the clinic called/The X-ray's fine/I brought you home/I just said home."

In Dollar Days, a jazzy, sassy kiss-off, he declares, "If I'll never see the English evergreens I'm running to/It's nothing to me", before adding: "Don't believe for just one second I'm forgetting you."

Likewise: Death does not become him. He will live on, remembered, ceaselessly reborn like Lazarus.

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