On January 10, 2016, two days after he turned sixty-nine, the English rock icon David Bowie died from cancer. With his notoriously insatiable intellect and a penchant for heavy themes, it was inevitable that Bowie would sing about mortality and the possibility of transcending it. And so he did: in 1970, at the ripe-old age of twenty-three, Bowie released his third album The Man Who Sold the World. Stuffed with ideas Bowie had found in Nietzsche and Lovecraft, the album’s nine hard rock songs take place in a world of myth and grandeur, a world populated by gods and the men—always men—who strive with those gods to fulfill hidden destinies. In Bowie’s imagination, men keep finding new and frankly exhausting ways to evade their humanity. They go mad (“All the Madmen”) or form weird collectives halfway between monasteries and fight clubs (“The Supermen”). In “The Width of a Circle,” the narrator worries he is “aging fast,” so he journeys to hell and has sex with the devil, as one does. “Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown,” sings the artist, trapped inside his two decades of flesh.
The album’s calling card remains its title track. In the song, Bowie first sounds bewildered to find anyone alive at all—“We must have died alone, a long, long time ago”—but then sings to us, his audience: “You’re face to face with the man who sold the world.” The song is a declaration of control—how much power must this man have if he sold the world?—but it also admits to helplessness, another case of being trapped inside flesh and a slave to the marketplace. A man holds the world in his hands, and all he can think to do is sell it? (This might explain why the song clicked with Nirvana’s late leader Kurt Cobain, whose qualms about playing “corporate rock” were legendary.) A last-minute lyric written in the recording studio while producer Tony Visconti waited, “tapping his fingers on the console” (O’Leary, 2015), the song was likely based on Robert Heinlein’s obscure novella The Man Who Sold the Moon. Its terse power has nevertheless resonated across the decades, right up to the release of Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, on his sixty-ninth birthday.
With Visconti once again at the console, Bowie recorded Blackstar’s seven songs last winter in a studio just a short walk from his Manhattan home. He was sick at the time, but few people knew it. He hired a new band, a young jazz quintet led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, to flesh out his demos and, in the case of the ballad “Dollar Days,” to improvise an entirely new song with him in the studio. After three weeks recording with the band, Bowie and Visconti sifted through hours of music and digitally spliced it together into finished songs. Visconti also re-recorded most of Bowie’s vocals using digital effects developed by the producer himself. The two men had adopted similar working methods back in the 1970s, and they were skilled enough editors that Blackstar rarely sounds cut and pasted—and when it does, you can be sure that Bowie intended it that way.
“Blackstar,” the ten-minute song that opens the album, depicts an execution in three parts. Bowie sets the scene with a long, mysterious melody in the Phrygian mode—it sounds vaguely “Middle Eastern”—while his unearthly vocals and Jason Lindner’s synthesizer glide together in parallel fifths, and drummer Mark Guiliana taps out skittery drum and bass beats. McCaslin’s saxophone responds with some tentative squawks, but instead of building to a climax, the band dissolves into an atonal jumble. Out of the jumble emerges part two, a sweet soul strut whose melody Bowie nicked from the Jackson Five’s “Someday at Christmas.” While Bowie sings about the executed man’s soul leaving his body and transforming into a “blackstar,” McCaslin finds himself multitracked into a horn section, playing cheerful call-and-response charts. The third part combines the soul strut with the Phrygian melody from part one, a well-worn structural device that unifies the song into an extended meditation on life after death. At least, I think it is about life after death. As for the precise meaning of “Blackstar,” interpretations vary, as interpretations of Bowie’s images always do. Is the star a celebrity? A political symbol? An astrophysical object on the wane? The song’s video depicts three scarecrows writhing on crosses and a jittery alien dance ritual around a bejeweled astronaut skull; which is to say, it offers no help at all.
To say Blackstar ponders Bowie’s mortality is like saying a Beach Boys album ponders summertime romance. Artists play with recurring themes, and Bowie spent much of his career considering the implications of dying. This is the singer who, in 1980, titled his second UK number one hit “Ashes to Ashes” and used it to kill off the beloved character Major Tom from his first chart topper, “Space Oddity.” Had Bowie written “Ashes”—or “The Man Who Sold the World,” or “The Motel,” or “New Killer Star,” or any number of others—for Blackstar, the choice would have seemed equally prescient. Better to say that, like the man who sold the world, Bowie never lost control. He shaped his career with the same deliberation he gave his music, so even ideas that began as larks would end up feeling like major personal statements. In the pinup days of rock ‘n’ roll, singers often cashed in on their biggest hits by releasing sequels (think Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry”). Bowie not only scored a hit with his sequel song, he used it to punctuate the first decade of his public life.
Sure enough, death haunts these new songs too. Sometimes the death is all in good fun. “Sue (or In a Season of Crime)” is a noirish murder ballad, in which Bowie kills Sue over a bed of roiling drumming and wicked tri-tone guitar riffs. (In 2014, he released a version of the song with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Schneider’s big band arrangement craftily exploited those tri-tones and won her a Grammy.) The nearly incomprehensible “Girl Loves Me” alludes to the ultraviolent characters of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, using their invented slang. The most rocking song, “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” draws its creative energy from John Ford’s lurid 1633 incest tragedy of a similar name. Bowie’s lyrics make no direct reference to the play aside from its title, but Bowie surely enjoyed Ford’s stage direction, “Enter Giovanni with a heart upon his dagger.”
When heard against the backdrop of Bowie’s long career, the slower death songs take their subject more seriously and cast it in a new, specific light: a sense of death as release. You can hear the release in those unearthly “Blackstar” harmonies, floating like the “spirit [that] rose a metre and stepped aside,” and in the synthesized string part that sweetens the song. You can also hear it in “Lazarus,” the album’s plodding second single. “I’ll be free, just like that bluebird,” sings Bowie, levitating above his deathbed in the music video. “Ain’t that just like me?” Well, no. Bowie’s music has always sounded focused and purposeful, even at its most jubilant (“Young Americans”) or ragged (“Rebel Rebel”); flying free like the bluebird has never been his métier. Compounding the lyric’s irony, “Lazarus” originated in Bowie’s new off-Broadway jukebox musical Lazarus. The show is a sequel to the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie played an alcoholic alien trying to escape our planet. In the New York Times review of the musical, critic Ben Brantley wrote that the young actor portraying the alien sang “Lazarus” with “glazed desperation,” a phrase not readily associated with either bluebirds or the Lazarus of John’s Gospel.
Bowie abandons irony for the album’s final two songs, both mid-tempo ballads about letting go of things. “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me,” he sings in “Dollar Days,” a lovely song that segues into one of his best. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” sounds lush and overflowing, as though the band tried to fill this one last song with as much music as they could: a harmonica sampled from Bowie’s 1977 “A New Career In a New Town,” a thick synthesizer riff, propulsive drums, guitar and sax solos… and Bowie’s plaintive voice. He repeats the title like an incantation, over chords that shift from foreboding to sad to resolute. From a songwriter who delighted in ambiguity and who knew he was dying when he wrote the lyric, the title revels in its multiple meanings. Is Bowie trying to give away everything—his wisdom, his music—before his time runs out? Does he feel he has given away too much already? Maybe he is just teasing annoying listeners who keep asking what “Blackstar” means: “I can’t give everything away!”
Something tells me Bowie meant to say all these things and more. Striving to overcome his humanity in 1970, he imagined he could sell the world. Now, looking back on a half-century-long career and preparing to leave his family, friends, and the world he loved, he struggled simply to give things away.
Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area.
O’Leary, Chris. Rebel Rebel: All the Songs of David Bowie from ‘64 to ‘76. Alresford, United Kingdom: Zero Books, 2015.