The Music JANUARY 20, 2016 - by Christopher H. James


In the wake of David Bowie's passing, Christopher H. James listens to Blackstar in a new light.

Stop all the clocks, silence the pianos, pack up the moon, extinguish the sun and indulge yourself one last time in the collective flood of grief on social media. A great light has gone out and we must somehow find our way through life without it.

A lot has happened since David Bowies final album Blackstar was released last week, on January 8. Following his unexpected passing, revelations as to Blackstar's genesis have come from long-time Bowie producer Tony Visconti, as he explained how this last statement was a "parting gift", and that Bowie's "death was no different from his life - a work of art. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it".

The disclosure that Bowie's cancer ordeal endured for eighteen months casts new light not only on Blackstar, but on its predecessor The Next Day. Its bizarre but unforgettable cover, which reproduced the mugshot from Bowie's classic 1977 album "Heroes" minus the face, now suggests that Bowie was well aware that his physical form may soon be erased. Likewise, the description of an exodus on the lead promotional track Where Are We Now? over the Boösebrücke bridge - a border crossing between East and West Germany - in Bowie's former home of Berlin, together with its sorrowful opening, is now not hard to imagine as an allusion for another kind of crossing, from this world to the next.

Blackstar and its promotional videos have been even more explicit in their message. particularly Lazarus, which opens with the line, "Look up here, I'm in heaven," and reveals Bowie writhing around on what might be his death bed. It's not the first time Bowie has explored sensitive personal themes through his music. Songs such as The Bewlay Brothers and Jump They Say were built from the tragic schizophrenia of his half-brother while on the cosmonaut anthem Space Oddity Bowie wrapped up his own feelings of isolation in grand space age metaphors. it's also not the first time he's reflected on what lies beyond the eternal void. as his 1971 song Quicksand advised, "Don't deceive with belief, knowledge comes with death's release" It's a fearless soul who looks on their own death as an opportunity to try a new direction, especially as he discloses so intimately his thoughts and feelings on Lazarus and the elegiac, reluctant-to-go I Can't Give Everything Away. But Bowie's axiom that "it's a lot more fun progressing than looking back" may make a morbid kind of sense here.

Equally fearless is Blackstar's startling jazz-influenced compositions. With the exception of the free-as-a-bird saxophone fluttering and rangy fret-work on I Can't Give Everything Away, it's a mostly restrained backing, with low atmospheric groans and tense drum work. The band is at their most expressive on the mysterious title track, whose mystical vagaries have already started a rumour mill of Satanist, Gnosticism and astrological theories.

Over the years, many labels have been applied to Bowie in a forlorn attempt to reduce his vast talent into a simple formula: "musical chameleon", "pop's Picasso" etc, etc, etc. But Bowie was Bowie. We shouldn't compare him to other things; we should compare other things to him. "Demonstrating a fathomless ability to express creativity across a breathtaking range of art forms, while courageously innovating and contradicting expectations"? Thats doing a "Bowie". With that in mind, what's perhaps most shocking when listening to Blackstar is the inevitable realisation that despite this recent surge of inspiration, there will be no more new David Bowie music. It's like turning the page of a book four-fifths of the way through, only to discover that the rest of the pages are blank.

Bowie belongs to the ages now. So too does Blackstar.


David Bowie's long-term producer has revealed that he has known for a year that the newly released album Blackstar would be the singer's final album, and that it was Bowie's intention for it to be his "parting gift" to fans, following news that he had tragically passed away yesterday after an eighteen-month battle with cancer.

In a Facebook post Tony Visconti, who first worked with Bowie on his second studio album, 1969's Space Oddity, paid tribute to the rock icon just hours after his death was announced.

"He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry."

Similarly, UK designer Jonathan Barnbrook, who designed the artwork for Blackstar as well as Heathen and The Next Day, said he was "devastated" by the news.

"Despite all of the pressure of such a big project he made it fun - it was just me and him, trying something new, and as with all of the people he worked with, he listened to you when you had an opinion, was fulsome in his praise when he liked something."

Brian Eno revealed he was sent an email by the artist about a week ago which he believes Bowie knew would be his final contact with him.

Speaking to BBC News, Eno said of the email, "It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did."

"It ended with this sentence: 'Thank you for our good times, Brian, they will never rot.' And it was signed 'Dawn'. I realise now he was saying goodbye."

Some of the musicians who worked with Bowie on the new album have also addressed his death.

Pianist Jason Lindner commented, "I'm deeply saddened, stunned, mystified and completely awed by the power of David Bowie's creativity and determination to produce all he did in the single year I've known him," while drummer Mark Guiliana called it "an absolute honour" to have worked with the musician.

"Thank you from the bottom of my humble heart for letting me into your life, and in doing so changing mine," he wrote.