Bowie and Blackstar: It only hurts when we breathe

I’m surprised more isn’t made of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. I guess the shock of his death just two days after its release overshadowed the discussion of what was and is an absolute classic of a record.

This week was the wedding anniversary of Iman and Bowie. She posted a picture from the wedding with the words, ‘I only miss you when I’m breathing’. I didn’t feel that way about Bowie. I was never as big a fan as some of my friends. But he was on the fringe of my musical tastes for decades. He was a mainstay in the cultural mosaic by which I understand myself, particularly as an Englishman of a certain era. He was part of my lexicon, and his songs form much of the imagery that helps me understand the world. He was an artist and a star the world needed and perhaps even deserved. Under Pressure with Bowie was up there with the very best Queen songs. His appearance on Ricky Gervais’ Extras was the very best episode. He was unique in so many ways, and remained at the very top of the artistic pile for years and years. Immediately upon its release, Blackstar became my favourite album that year, and I couldn’t wait for more. So, like millions, I was gutted two days later when he died.

It’s well documented now that Blackstar was a farewell gift from Bowie to his fans. But even that fact has overshadowed the album itself. Fans have pored over the vinyl gatefold sleeve to find hidden messages and clever design elements. They’ve interpreted every line of every song to find references to his own sickness and anticipated death. Much of this is because they had to interpret the tracks twice—once upon release, then again through the lens of the shock news and their own grief. I have no doubt Bowie intended it to be precisely so.

I haven’t stopped listening to Blackstar over the past two years. It’s a tour de force on so many layers. It remains mysterious and confounding, theatrical, spiritual, hopeful and tragic. It’s also one of the best jazz albums released in recent years. Much of that is down to the band Bowie assembled to give his songs, two of which had been released before, an energy that would transcend his own departure. Recorded with jazz player Donny McCaslin and his band, the story goes that Bowie was scouting them play in a New York club before inviting them to participate in what would be his final full-length project. Imagine getting that tap on the shoulder! During production of the record Bowie, McCaslin, producer Tony Visconti and the band immersed themselves in—what else!—Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. The influence shows. Just compare the two previously released tracks, Sue (In A Time of War) and Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, and note the power of the Blackstar versions. McCaslin and his band bring that same energy to the entire album.

It’s tempting to say they’re the best tracks on the album. But there’s so much else on there to celebrate: the ritualistic and (possibly) occultic Blackstar, which seems to reference the death of Major Tom; the stunningly beautiful Lazarus, in which Bowie plays the dying friend of Jesus hoping to see signs of his ‘ass’, and therefore resurrection from the dead; Girl Loves Me, featuring the slang Polari lyrics to symbolise the semi-literate state of his drugged out final days; and I Can’t Give Everything, a final goodbye in the form of a song about looking back and then moving on.

The best way to hear Blackstar is, of course, on vinyl. The sonic field of the album is so wide and deep that it deserves to be heard with minimal compression and as loud as your neighbours can stand. There’s enough in Bowie’s catalogue to make us remember and miss him for a very long time. He didn’t need to release Blackstar to make the world mourn. But man, what an exclamation point on a remarkable human life.

Perhaps he was never merely human after all.