Friday, 22 January 2016

In the valley of the shadow of Blackstar


Listening to David Bowie's Blackstar, the weekend it was released, I pondered how unusual it was to hear an album devoid of context or explanation.  No interviews, live performances, chat show appearances, just a 40-minute album and the echo chamber of critics' assessments. It was exhilarating but slightly disorientating.

24 hours later, of course, all that had changed.  Rather than being stripped of context, the album was suddenly overwhelmed, freighted with news of its creator's death, a death that had been anticipated throughout the recording process, though surely never expected to follow so swiftly after the album's release. 

The fact of Bowie's terminal illness is not so much a black star as a black hole, threatening to draw in and annihilate everything in its orbit.  Just as Station to Station is Bowie's 'cocaine album', The White Album is the Beatles' 'break-up album', or Here My Dear is Marvin Gaye's 'divorce album', Blackstar will forever be Bowie's 'death album'.  It will be the one thing, the only thing, that everyone knows.

That's understandable but a bit of a shame.  It risks painting David Bowie as Grandpa Simpson, stalked by death at every turn (a simile that is really an excuse to show one of my favourite clips).  



But Blackstar is actually one of the best (the best, in my current view) of Bowie's late albums - rich and rewarding repeated listening.  There seem to be playful references to the First World War, 1984, nadsat, the Titanic, polari, and sly humour, even in Lazarus, where Bowie sounds like he is relishing the bathos as he intones, "I was looking for your...ass."

And a morbid tone is not unusual, for Bowie or other rock stars in their autumn years.  There's plenty of death in The Next Day, released in 2013: "Here I am, not quite dying" begins the defiant chorus of the apocalyptic title song, and the elegaic Where Are We Now? picks up the theme as Bowie walks the dead through the streets of Berlin.  Bob Dylan went through what sounded like a terminal phase in the 1990s. Time Out of Mind, recorded when he was 56, was stuffed full of references to mortality ('Trying to get to heaven before they close the door', 'It's not dark yet, but it's getting there', to pick two).  Since then, Dylan has moved on, and his more recent albums spend less time contemplating his own death, and more time gleefully planning his enemies' (see Paid in Blood on Tempest). And the dour tone of REM's 1992 Automatic for the People gave rise to endless rumours that Michael Stipe was terminally ill.

None of which is to belittle the sheer weight that impending mortality brings to bear on Blackstar, nor the unparalleled achievement (which sounds wrong, but I can't immediately think of a better word) of releasing something so complete so close to death.  But it's far from the whole story in an album that sounds by turns doleful, cryptic and almost indecently celebratory.