I was crossing a pitch black street and talking on the phone. Totally quiet, totally dark. Whatever I heard on the phone had one hundred percent of my attention. It was a little after midnight.
My friend said this with zero emotion. If I know one thing, it’s that when someone says “wow” with zero emotion, it’s always horrible news. It’s what your dad says when he finds out his savings account has no money left in it. “Wow” is normally a theatrical word. You’re supposed to perform when you say it, like when a little kid wants your validation for running a lap around the couch. Without performance, that word opens up the entire spectrum of possible bad news. People say “wow” like that when presidents die. I asked what happened.
“David Bowie died.”
Midnight, freezing, you hear David Bowie died, you don’t question it. The culture just changed forever. You skip right to reconfiguring your now outdated information about the man.
Like his new album Blackstar, the narrative of which I got all wrong. It wasn’t strictly the sinister, brooding art album that proved he was still interested in relevance; that maybe led to a November stand at Madison Square Garden with LCD Soundsystem as the opener. This was the end of the road now. The last one. The death album.
In that single second, the album’s identity was suddenly different. It became a deliberate sign-off. It was proof he saw his death coming from a distance. This is something you don’t see in music: one single piece of information that upends the fundamental way you interpret its meaning, the place you file it in your brain. Where the metaphorical becomes the literal, the fictional the autobiographical. “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”
As a death album, it’s totally singular. Everybody else would use the concept as an opportunity to get spiritual and sentimental and sing favorite songs. After all, the death album is where you’re granted permission to sit in a rocking chair and watch the sun go down, no matter how cool you thought you were. But Bowie didn’t do that, and the extent to which he didn’t do that is downright unnerving. Death is an ancient theme, but Blackstar feels remarkably new. It’s haunting, dark, twitchy, conjuring the mood of breaking into an abandoned hospital and looking for a source of light but never exactly finding one.
It’s not particularly sad. It’s not defiantly fun. It’s dark and intimidating and littered with knives and ghosts. It’s Bowie getting as close as he can to complete artistic remove from his own death. He’s staring down on himself. The result is one of the most challenging and avant-garde death albums ever made. It’s not something to revisit in the daylight when you’re well of soul. But it resonates as the work of a performer with total control even in death. Death was his subject. He poked and prodded it and came up with a work belonging strictly to him. When people heard it, they heard the work first. They didn’t hear someone fighting through sickness. They just heard the work. And that’s exactly what he wanted. Total control over his last scene. A perfectly managed exit. Now you see him, now you don’t. It’s difficult not to admire his stagecraft.