Album Review: David Bowie - Blackstar

Album Reviews
01/08/2016
Gerrit Feenstra

Despite the innumerable sources of praise and worship from every corner of the earth, David Bowie somehow finds a way to face a sort of misrepresentation in the modern world, where every new album is slated as a comeback. Each forthcoming effort from the aging rock legend has some sort of Lazarus effect over the prior, raising a dead name from the grave to live again with a graceless lack of context outside of a so-called heyday. But in this assessment, we miss the wonders that rock's greatest careerist musician does in the long game. For the last quarter century or so, David Bowie has had a very clear mission statement, dedicating his ongoing musical career to one social assessment after another, carefully gathering his thoughts, sometimes personal (2002's fantastic Heathen), and sometimes socially poignant (1995's criminally underrated Outside). Through the 90s, Bowie's mission was a march towards the end of a millennium, wondering what came after the maximalist culture wave of the 90s decided that it was tired of itself. Through the first half of the 2000s, Bowie nurtured this exasperation in our growing feelings of anxiety and separation accompanying the expansion of the Internet, where we've never been more distant, even only a click away. After some time away, Bowie returned to tackle the next decade with an idea that we've never feared more: the future. With his twenty-fifth studio album, Blackstar, David Bowie continues the monumental energy begun by The Next Day into a darker, experimental discussion of the unknown just beyond the horizon.

Blackstar benefits from a two-fold context, one historical, and the other circumstantial. The former is obvious - Blackstar puts Bowie twenty five studio albums deep into a career now spanning over fifty years. Immediately, it sits in the wake of an incredibly popular "comeback" record, 2013's The Next Day. With its mock-"Heroes" artwork and its feelings of vertigo and exacerbation, The Next Day, put David Bowie in a context we'd never seen him in before: eternity. "And the next day and the next, and the next day" - that's how Bowie chooses to kick off his first album in nearly ten years. Now, here we are, not quite dying three years later, and Bowie returns to a vinyl-centric album approach for the first time since before Tin Machine. Merely by existing as a fresh, fearless glance into the future, and not another nod to the past behind the comfortable curtain of untouchable legacy, Blackstar is bold, surprising, and confrontational.

The latter piece of context is Ivo van Hove's incredibly popular Lazarus play, which Bowie wrote music for for very obvious reasons. Lazarus is a sequel to Bowie's 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which his alien character Thomas Newton (played brilliantly by Michael C. Hall) is stuck on earth, ageless and soaking in booze, wondering what's left for an eternal being in a dying world. I don't think Hove could have had any better timing in approaching Bowie for the project. Here, on the other side of The Next Day, Bowie finds himself in nearly the same shoes as his fated character. What's next if there is only death for everything that you know? Where do you really find immortality if you are never around to touch it?

Enter Blackstar. Here, David Bowie continues The Next Day's theme of immortality into a more hot-blooded, pagan venture. Where The Next Day coolly questions, Blackstar acts rashly, instinctively, not wanting to get lost in the fray. In the video for the title track, Bowie reverses the plot of The Man Who Fell To Earth. Here, the remains of an astronaut carrying a sacred text are found on a distant planet. Here, the lessons of that text are made into a fearsome faith that is both mystical and frightening. Bowie wrestles with the idea of fame, fortune and glory, and the same stardom he pinned so coldly on "The Stars Are Out Tonight" (in which Bowie once again portrayed himself as a very alien, disconnected version of himself in a mundane life). But here, stardom evolves into a greater thing, a feat beyond its own understanding or intention. History loses its freedom of choice. "Blackstar" is an all-encompassing Pandora's Box of consciousness, slating the abuses of fundamentalist religion and celebrity worship as the same level of unconscious evil and avoidance of real death. "Lazarus" continues this idea into the beyond. Death is inevitable, but the question of what comes after for the spirit and the body is a massive what-if. We all become a Lazarus in some effect, rising again in some form not quite the same. But do we have any choice about it?

Where Blackstar weaves its way into our darkest dreams of the future, it also finds a way to look backwards through time with the same intensity and bleakness. "Tis a Pity She's a Whore" (taking its name from the John Ford play) speaks from the perspective of the rigid, unflinching wartime human machine. Here, death comes to our door without warning, and we have no choice but to shoot it in the face and justify it to ourselves. "Sue (In A Season of Crime)" goes straight for the jugular in a life-story length jazz break that starts with an optimistic love story with no respect for death, and ends in a jarring separation with nothing but fear of the unknown. Blackstar questions our knowledge of the future on every level. Never has tomorrow, the next day in all of us, seemed so menacing. No wonder so many turn to the "blackstars", the untruths of the world that claim to hold the keys to the future, to guide them through a darkened tunnel of unknowing.

With all the talk of death and eternity, one can't help but wonder whether or not Blackstar will be Bowie's last. Truly, if it were, what a way to go out. But at the same time, you can analyze Blackstar not so much as a personal statement of unknowing, but more as a larger reflection on our social anxiety as a result of increasing individualism over time. We are afraid to admit what we don't know, and when we don't, we seek answers not from each other, but from the void. With the entirety of the past at our disposal, all of it up for interpretation as best we see fit, we have a million ways to convince ourselves of what the next day holds. Like Thomas Newton, we wonder what the world holds for us when we know that it can't live forever. But as David Bowie has shown time and time again, with open eyes, there is only discovery to be had. Though it may be dark and murky, Blackstar is a brilliant and triumphant journey, and reminds us that we only have more time to prove our worth and place in the world. David Bowie doesn't seem to be phased by age and the ever present void - rather, he's thrown all hesitation to the wind. With Blackstar, I think he's telling us to do the same.

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