Q MARCH 2016 - by Dorian Lynskey


Blackstar (2016)

As the world celebrated his return, we missed his coded farewell.

An ending that felt like another new beginning. A swansong full of life and motion. Proof that Bowie was, in more ways than one, fearless. A fascinating riddle to which the answer, we discovered to our horror, was that David Bowie was dying. Before all that became apparent, though, there was a brief window during which Blackstar was simply a strange and thrilling album from an artist whose creative energy seemed undiminished.

The clues were there in his first release after the self-referencing The Next Day. Appended to 2014's Nothing Has Changed compilation, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) was a roiling stew of murder, sexual jealousy, '90s drum'n'bass and big-band jazz, unlike anything he'd ever done. Sue and its brutish demo B-side 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore would reappear, in new forms, on Blackstar, one of the most surprising LPs of his career. "This is fresh. This came from a different space," said producer Tony Visconti, who began working on other demos that summer. "Nothing was done recalling the past."

On the recommendation of jazz composer Maria Schneider, the saxophonist Donny McCaslin had performed on the first version of Sue in June 2014. When Bowie saw McCaslin's quartet play in Manhattan he was so inspired that he went home and wrote 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, then emailed McCaslin to offer the group work (other musicians who got the call included LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy).

On their first day in New York's The Magic Shop studio last January, Bowie told McCaslin, "I have no idea how this is going to go. Let's just go for it and see what happens."

The first Bowie album without a picture of the singer on the cover, Blackstar was a delightful enigma. No two songs sounded the same. Its seven distinct entities, weaving between art-rock and jazz, autobiography and geopolitics, electronica and musical theatre, were united only by their boldness. The past poked through occasionally: the stars on the sleeve and the Clockwork Orange argot on Girl Loves Me nodded to his glam-rock days; Lazarus sprang from The Man Who Fell To Earth, the same novel that had given Bowie his defining screen role; the long, shape-shifting title track inevitably brought to mind Station To Station. But the overall impression was one of liberation and unquenchable curiosity. Visconti said he and Bowie were inspired by Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly: "He threw everything on there. The goal was to avoid rock'n'roll."

It had an idiosyncratic sense of fun, too. According to keyboard player Jason Lindner, "The only instruction we received was: 'Have a good time'." For all the LP's aura of cryptic dread, Bowie seemed to have obeyed his own command. Transcending all expectations, he had never sounded more free.

By withholding news of his cancer from everyone outside his inner circle, Bowie ensured that the acclaim Blackstar received was sincere rather than sentimental. But it can never be heard in the same way again. That first line in Lazarus, "Look up here, I'm in heaven," feels too on-the-nose. That black star on the front looks like a cosmic gravestone. The lyrics of I Can't Give Everything Away (how true that claim turned out to be) sound like his last words to his audience: "Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That's the message that I sent."

That's one way of looking at it, as a coded long goodbye, coloured by death. Another way is to find its spiky vivacity even more remarkable. According to the official statement, Bowie was diagnosed with cancer eighteen months ago, around the time he recorded Sue and asked Visconti to come and work on some demos with him. He knew he was making his final album and he chose to make a record full of noise and mystery, with an obscure jazz quartet - the furthest he could get from a safe bet. He raged against the dying of the light. With saxophones.

After Bowie's death, Visconti said, "He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift." If so, the gift was to trust in his fans' intelligence, to refuse to pander to nostalgia and to remind anyone who cared about him that the whole point of Bowie's body of work was forward movement - to go for it and see what happens. That's the message that he sent.

So the sadness was relieved a little by the realisation that no artist could contrive a finer exit. Bowie performed one last reinvention, celebrated one last birthday, enjoyed one last flurry of love and admiration, and left the stage. His fans would have mourned his death whatever he'd released towards the end, but Blackstar was a glorious final reminder of how brilliantly he'd lived.