David Bowie—the artist who transcended style and media and form and perhaps his own self—died yesterday, 2 days after his 69th birthday and the release of what is now his final album, Blackstar.
The tributes and remembrances that I’ve seen today have been moving and wide-ranging, reflecting Bowie’s unique influence on listeners of all kinds. Composer/violinist/Arcade Fire member Owen Pallett has a touching story about having dinner with Bowie back in 2005. Author Elizabeth Gilbert is overwhelmed by Bowie’s making art in the face of death. And actor Simon Pegg put it beautifully and succinctly:
“If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”
Like Gilbert, I am deeply moved by Bowie’s ability not just to create while confronting his mortality head on, but to continue to stretch himself in new directions. I’ve not only admired Bowie’s ability to reinvent himself (rock’s version of a Stravinsky or Miles Davis), but also his collaborative approach—how he embraces the knowledge and insight of others to expand his art’s expressive range.
Blackstar (and his previous single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” released in October 2014), find Bowie once again challenging himself to expand his art through collaboration, this time with New York jazz musicians (many of whom I’ve written about here and at Jazz Speaks). Sitting at home on this cold and sunny afternoon, all I can think of to do is delve into this valedictory work and bid farewell to this inimitable human being.
Track 1: Blackstar
This is a sprawling odyssey, but the direction of motion is uncertain. Mark Guiliana’s drumming is energetic and intense, but also brutally syncopated, as if gracefully tap dancing in lead shoes. The other band members seem to be moving at different speeds and in different directions. Guitarist Ben Monder’s fingerpicking is relaxed, peacefully drifting through keyboardist Jason Lindner’s vintage synth patches, while saxophonist Donny McCaslin swoops in and out with melodic fragments that move at yet a different rate. The atmosphere is simultaneously tranquil and deeply unsettling.
Bowie’s vocals are striking and declamatory, almost a sacred chorale. He harmonizes himself, an ethereal falsetto floating an octave and a fifth above his main note. That interval is part of the harmonic series, meaning that the two pitches, though far apart, are proportionally related and fuse in the mind. It’s as if I’m hearing both Bowie’s earthly and heavenly voices simultaneously. Both Bowie’s voice and McCaslin’s saxophone are mixed in a way to make it seem that the performers are moving in space in relation to me as the listener. Sometimes, they seem far away, other times close up. Sometimes they move from my right to my left side. It’s disorienting and positively spine-tingling.
At about four minutes in, the rhythms break down, the song reaching a place of restless repose. A new major-key chord progression enters, surrounded by the opening section’s fizzy haze. Bowie intones:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
Poignancy aside, I’m really curious about the meaning of the word “blackstar,” particularly in how he contrasts it with not being a “gangstar,” “film star,” “pop star,” “marvel star,” “white star,””porn star,” or “wandering star.” Maybe it’s just the fact that the lyrics move to the second person, with Bowie addressing some unknown you, but I get a sort of Walt Whitman-esque feeling here. Perhaps “blackstar” is a way of saying that “I contain multitudes,” that this bridge is a sort of bizarro Song of Myself. After hearing the obtuse lyrics of the opening section that can disorient or alienate, Bowie is inviting the listener to ponder them, explore the blackness and the mystery. The things that the listener may not understand in a Bowie song are just as much an authentic part of him as the things that the listener can understand. This simultaneous disorientation and embrace is something that I experience in a lot of great music. I think jazz pianist Brad Mehldau puts it pretty well when he describes the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It’s like they’re saying: Continue reading