The Biblical god Yahweh is the cruelest character in all of literature. He condoned slavery, slaughtered swathes of children, razed cities to the ground on a whim. But of all his ruthless deeds, none were as cruel as shortening mankind’s once bountiful lifespan to a mere threescore years and ten. At least to the vain among us.
David Bowie’s fantastic twenty-fifth studio album ‘Blackstar’ is dense with religious imagery. Its dark serpentine corridors are haunted by spectres of fallen angels, saintly whores and prodigal sons. But pivotal to it all is that sacred number seven: the seven decades allotted to man after his expulsion from Eden, each tied symbolically to a day of Creation, each characterized on ‘Blackstar’ by one of its sprawling, jazz-rock odysseys. “One man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages,” wrote Shakespeare in the opening monologue of ‘As You Like It’. Recorded in New York City with a local jazz group as a backing band, ‘Blackstar’ is an album that pays homage to that passage of time.
If last studio album, 2013’s ‘The Next Day’, sounded like a man fighting against the confines of his own mortality, ‘Blackstar’ is an aural shrug-of-the-shoulders – an acceptance. “Seeing more and feeling less/ Saying no but meaning yes/ This is all I ever meant/ That’s the message that I sent,” he softly sings in his inimitable way on ‘I Can’t Give Myself Away’, bowing his head to – and trying to make sense of – the unknowable inevitability of time. But there’s nostalgia too. “Where the f*ck did Monday go?” bemoans a crestfallen Bowie on the eerily perfect ‘Girl Loves Me’, his voice tinged by yearning, pining for yesteryear.
Stylistically, ‘Blackstar’ is more impenetrable than ‘The Next Day’. Its jazz-rock soundscapes are hazier: title track ‘Blackstar’ and lead single ‘Lazarus’ in particular are shrouded in an almost menacing glacial ambience. Bowiephiles and those with bookish pretensions will rejoice – there’s a rich treasure trove of literary allusions to decipher, from 17th century literature to Germanic mythology. But there’s a wealth of accessible surface riches too: the doom-laden horn section of ‘Lazarus’, the heart-warming and heart-rending dual piano lines of ‘Dollar Days’, and the skittering drum ‘n’ bass backdrop of ‘Sue (of In a Season of Crime)’. It’s quintessential Bowie in its disregard for convention, in the way it expresses the unconventional via the conventional, in the way it’s simultaneously intellectual and anthemic.
David Bowie’s career has been one of perpetual re-invention. He is pop music’s real-life Prometheus, a Titan prepared to endure an endless cycle of death and resurrection for the sake of gifting fire to man. Deliberately released on the date of his 69th birthday, it came as he was entering the twilight stage of that what both God and Shakespeare termed the final act. ‘Blackstar’ may well be his final gift to us mere mortals, but it’s an incredible final chapter.
PUBLISHED: CLASH MAGAZINE – JANUARY 2016