Four years ago on January 8, David Bowie gave us a majestic gift on his own birthday: Blackstar, his 25th and final studio album. I believe Blackstar is the most significant work of popular music in the 21st Century. For with Blackstar, David Bowie taught us how to die.
Death is an excruciatingly difficult topic for most of us to come to terms with — and yet death will happen to all of us. We often associate aging and death with images of our bodies and minds crumbling away in nursing homes and hospital beds. Perhaps author Ezekiel J. Emanuel summed up our widespread apprehensions best in his utterly depressing 2014 Atlantic article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” In the essay, he wallows in all our worst fears about growing older and descending ever closer to death — the weakening of our spirits, erosion of creativity, and withering away of our bodies.
But with Blackstar, David Bowie gave us a new perspective on death and dying. He recorded Blackstar as he was suffering from liver cancer although few people knew of his condition at the time. When Blackstar was released on his 69th birthday, in 2016, the album made an immediate impact. The album announced its bold intent with a sprawling 10-minute title track that meandered its way into our earbuds and demanded our attention in an age when most listeners are conditioned by Spotify to treat songs like little snippets of white noise. The lead-off song was rife with references to mortality and death, as when he sang:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
“Blackstar” recast our journey toward death as a strange, wondrous exploration of another world, a vibe that is even more striking in the song’s surreal video. The video is far from comforting, but it exudes movement and adventure, not the decay we associate with growing older:
On the album’s centerpiece, the reflective and moody “Lazarus,” Bowie embraced the specter of death more directly and powerfully, especially in the song’s video, where he cast himself as a dying man about to release his spirit.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sang. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Here, he assumed the voice of a narrator whose impending death gives him a more powerful and cogent self-awareness that perhaps he lacked when he was younger and careless:
Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?
By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
There I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass
Although those two songs made the strongest impression on me when I first heard them on the day the album was released, I found Blackstar as a whole to be a uniformly grand, intensely personal statement. The songs were infused with improvisational jazz overtones owing to Bowie choosing to collaborate with musicians such as saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Throughout the entire album, Bowie’s keen understanding of mortality — and his desire to create art from that understanding — was an underlying thread, down to the final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” in which he sang:
I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal songs
With blackout hearts, with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
On David Bowie’s 69th birthday, I, like many others, celebrated Blackstar as the triumph of a man who was creating vibrant art as he was knocking on the door of 70 — and a challenge to give music our full attention instead of treating songs like digital background noise while we exercise and clean the house. As Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in a pre-release review January 6, 2016:
Instability and ambiguity are the only constants on David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” the strange, daring, ultimately rewarding album he releases this week on his 69th birthday. It’s at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans.
Then, on January 10, everyone who had heard Blackstar saw the new album in a new light, when it was announced that David Bowie had died of liver cancer. Our joy at Bowie’s triumph turned to shock — and then wonder as we considered the album’s exploration of mortality in a new context.
As news of Bowie’s death reverberated, we now saw Blackstar for what it really was: his farewell gift. We listened to every song again and re-watched the videos, which took on a new poignance when the stories about Blackstar emerged — such as Bowie, deciding to end his cancer treatment and accept death even as he was filming the “Lazarus” video. His producer, Tony Visconti, talked openly about Bowie’s commitment to creating art even as Bowie was battling cancer. On Facebook, Visconti wrote of Bowie’s death:
He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.
The richness of that gift manifested itself again and again when I listened to the album with the knowledge of his passing. “Lazarus” sounded like a more personal reckoning with death from a man who knew what was coming, down to the images of Bowie in a hospital bed, and the enigmatic line, “Just like that bluebird, Oh I’ll be free.” Even the album artwork was a parting gift as fascinating and strange Bowie himself, thanks to designer Jonathan Barnbrook. It took time for fans to realize this, but if you removed the album from the sleeve, the black paper behind the cut-out revealed a hidden picture of a starfield when the foldout sleeve was held up to a light source.
Blackstar becomes more meaningful as its listeners experience the album year after year amid the passage of time. It doesn’t matter if you’re 24, 44, or 74: aging and dying are inevitabilities. But David Bowie taught us that it’s possible to face aging and dying with vibrancy, dignity, and grace.
As NPR’s music critic Ann Powers said later in 2016, “There’s no doubt that Bowie was aware of how very, very sick he was. But he also kept the dire nature of his illness from his collaborators and insisted that he would be able to continue on. So, does it feel like a dying man’s gasp? No, it doesn’t — it feels so eloquent, yet it offers this view into that experience that is useful to all of us, even as it’s so sad to listen to.”
Blackstar was more than a gift. David Bowie challenged us to consider the gifts we’ll leave for the world.