A friend of a friend wrote the following on Facebook about my evaluation of David Bowie’s Blackstar: “I think the author would probably rethink the review now that the album's in context.”
Indeed—how could I, or any other critic, not? The sentiment wasn’t meant to be snarky, nor was it limited to my piece (which was mostly glowing, with a few caveats). But it’s true that I almost purposively overlooked what now appear to be neon-bright signals that Bowie was delivering his swan song.
Almost three years ago, I assumed The Next Day was designed to be Bowie’s final will and testament, and I was, of course, woefully wrong. I eulogized him too early in my review, and then ignored the evidence placed squarely in front of my nose on Blackstar. Wishful thinking at work, I guess.
So if I could travel back in time, while still composing my Blackstar review ten days ago, how would I have rethought David Bowie’s beautiful goodbye? I hope I would’ve drawn the same connection NPR’s Stephen Thompson made on Monday with regard to Warren Zevon’s deliberate send-off The Wind. That album remains a heartbreaking work from an artist confronting death (he passed away two weeks after its release, also from cancer). Unlike Bowie, Zevon was outspoken about his impending demise. The Wind wasn’t a celebration exactly, but it wasn’t mawkish either. Instead, it was a well-earned valediction, both brutally honest and unflinching.
In retrospect, a mere day or so after David Bowie’s death, the same applies to Blackstar. Each of these seven tracks are haunted by the awful truth that arrived two days after their debut. The videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” now seem painfully obvious. Mortality wasn’t something Bowie confronted in the abstract; he offered us stark visual representations of his end.
There’s no use in parsing the particulars of Blackstar so soon after losing such a towering genius. Bowie’s fare-thee-well to his fans is all there, in abundance. One lyric, from “Lazarus”, does stick out though: “You know I'll be free/just like that bluebird/Now, ain't that just like me?” The bluebird in question must be of the same mythical flock Judy Garland sang about in “Over the Rainbow”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into a queer connection, but this is Bowie we’re talking about, so I doubt it.
My only regret is that I wrote the following sentences about The Next Day, and not Blackstar. They don’t apply as precisely, but who cares? We work through grief in our own ways. Here’s my little chance to rewrite history: “What an exit [Blackstar is], though. The Folkie, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Melancholy Experimentalist, the Rock God, the Goblin King, and the Elder Statesman all finally converged on a single man. Cue a reading from Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’”
Somewhere deep in the cosmos, a constellation has gained a strange new star.
Image: David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Recorded Picture Company, 1983)