Critics are supposed to have perspective on their subject. We are supposed to have some degree of insider knowledge. We have access to the industry machinery, at least in theory; sometimes access to the artists themselves.
As a breed, we were driving blind with David Bowie’s Blackstar. Not one of us knew for sure that Bowie’s final hour was so close, although speculation about his health had been rife for years.
I made the trip to the PR’s offices to hear a playback in December – twice through. This is standard practice for major releases. No one likes it, but it plugs leaks. A secure stream would be available shortly before release; I’d refresh my memory, check lyrics on headphones before filing my copy. No written lyrics were available.
In that conference room, I wrote reams of jumbled notes about Bowie’s rather quaint use of Nadsat (Anthony Burgess’s youth argot from his novel A Clockwork Orange), and of his nods to mortality, of the most fantastic deployment of jazz in a non-jazz setting, of Kendrick Lamar, of how perhaps Bowie was allying himself with him, and jazz (“I’m not a white star”), of songs written from multiple perspectives, of “something very wrong”, of memento mori all over the place, of how the final song, I Can’t Give Everything Away, effectively signs off. “I’m dying to,” he sings on Dollar Days, which I first misheard as “I’m dying too”. I didn’t use any of it.
“Pennies for the boatman,” I thought, when I first saw the video for Lazarus, set in a sanatorium, in which Bowie’s eyes are wrapped in bandages, with what look like buttons on top. I didn’t use that either. I assumed that Lazarus was written in character, like other Blackstar songs, not least Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), in which the ailing Sue seems to be tended, then perhaps murdered, by the protagonist. Of all the conspiracy theories and occultists having a field day in Bowie’s symbolism, no one has quite explained what’s going on in Sue.
The biblical Lazarus, of course, didn’t actually stay dead; Bowie’s musical of the same name was a sequel of sorts to The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which an alien thoroughly fails to assimilate on Earth. Lazarus had all sorts of enticing paths to follow, other than the tomb. I didn’t know then about the unreleased Elvis song Black Star; I hadn’t seen the Villa of Ormen Tumblr yet. I saw no reason at the time to belabour Bowie’s 70s interest in the occult.
Mainly, I recoiled from writing about what now are obvious references to dying and finality, because I was keen to avoid cliche, and ageism, and the ghastly literalism common to more confessional singer-songwriters. Although no one can truly avoid writing about themselves, Bowie was an artist in the fullest sense, one whose career was littered with aliases, performance, experiment and a hugely learned set of reference points. He may have been 69, but it would have been presumptuous, alarmist and intellectually lazy to assume he was pondering his own death. Or so I thought.
We’re at a point in the life cycle of an art form where its founders are hitting the final buffers. Mortality? Johnny Cash’s last album, American IV, in which the country singer did explicitly explore his own looming mortality, leads us to assume they are all at it. Around the time of his brain aneurysm a decade ago, Neil Young probably was. But he’s got a new girlfriend now.
A few years back, around the time of Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen was candid about his eagerness to say all he could before his own final deadline. That other giant of mystique, Bob Dylan, had quite a body count on his 2012 album, Tempest, but, crucially, these were the passings of others. I’m not trying to start an argument about the superiority of Bowie to any of these artists, but with Bowie, the starting point for analysis has never been lived experience. Bowie was a lot more fun than that.
I regret not writing about mortality in my review. Who doesn’t want to look like a seer? But I don’t regret it that much, because we have been left with a tremendous album, Blackstar, which was tremendous even before it became a roman à clef and an epitaph. In all the outpourings of affection for “our Diana” (as my neighbour wryly quipped), Bowie’s latest album has, in fact, got a little lost. Blackstar’s greatness doesn’t depend entirely on its codedness, on its sad context. It is a silvery, allusive, restless piece of art – death or no death.
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