'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore [4.52]
Girl Loves Me [4.51]
Dollar Days [4.44]
I Can't Give Everything Away [5.47]
ISO/Columbia 88875173862 - January 2016 (CD)
ISO/Columbia 88875173871 - January 2016 (LP)
David Bowie: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Fender Guitar on "Lazarus", String Arrangement on "Blackstar"
Donny McCaslin: Saxophone, Flute, Woodwind
Jason Lindner: Piano, Wurlitzer Organ, Keyboards
Tim Lefebvre: Bass
Mark Guiliana: Drums, Percussion
Ben Monder: Guitar
Tony Visconti: Strings on "Blackstar"
James Murphy: Percussion on "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)" and "Girl Loves Me"
Erin Tonkon: BAcking Vocals on "'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore"
The Magic Shop, New York/Human, New York
David Bowie, Tony Visconti
The global success of The Next Day reignited Bowie's enthusiasm for making music, and he was not idle for long. Shortly after the album's release he contributed a guest vocal to the title track of Arcade Fire's Reflektor, released in the autumn of 2013. At the following year's Brit Awards, he was named Best British Male Solo Artist. Needless to say he declined to show up in person at the ceremony on February 19th: accepting the award on his behalf was supermodel Kate Moss, wearing the Ziggy-era 'Woodland Creature' costume, on loan from the V&A for the occasion. Moss read out a brief address sent by David, which ended with the words: "Thank you very, very much - and Scotland, stay with us." At the time, feelings were running high about Scotland's forthcoming referendum on independence from the United Kingdom, and Bowie's 'intervention' generated newspaper headlines and the predictable Twitterstorm: reactions ranged from Prime Minister David Cameron's confession that he "let out a little cry of joy" when Bowie's message was read out, to one tabloid attempting to dredge up the 1976 'Nazi' controversy. It seems unlikely that Bowie lost much sleep over either of these smears. He had other irons in the fire.
"I got a call from David Bowie out of the blue two days ago," the singer Claudia Lennear told a reporter in March 2014. "He told me he wanted to write my next project. I couldn't believe it when I first heard his voice. We haven't seen each other in twenty years." That this collaboration apparently came to nothing is unsurprising, given that David was becoming increasingly busy on other projects. It was in the spring of 2014 that he had his first meeting with playwright Enda Walsh to discuss his plans for the stage production Lazarus, and in tandem with that venture he had begun developing fresh musical ideas which would eventually coalesce into his final album.
In May 2014 Bowie contacted New York bandleader Maria Schneider to discuss the possibility of working together, and on her recommendation, he attended a gig at Manhattan's 55 Bar on June 1st to see Donny McCaslin's quartet playing their brand of experimental jazz-rock. The first fruit of these encounters would be the original version of "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)", recorded in July - but by the time that song reached the studio, others had begun taking shape.
In June 2014, with "Sue" already on the starting blocks, Bowie invited Tony Visconti and Zachary Alford to Magic Shop, the venue for The Next Day's tracking sessions, to record some new demos. "We spent a couple of days in the studio, fooled around with a few concepts and got five songs done," Visconti later told Mojo. "We didn't use all of them but it got him going." Following the pattern established in the early stages of The Next Day's development, David now took the demo material home and worked on it alone for several months. In the late summer, while Visconti travelled to the UK to join Woody Woodmansey on the supergroup Holy Holy's inaugural tour of The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie busied himself at home. "He's got a little set-up there," explained Visconti, "and there was no clear communication from him until December. That's when he told me he was ready to make the album."
Creatively restless as ever, Bowie was keen to ring the changes and attempt something more adventurous than simply repeating the success of The Next Day. "We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar," Visconti said later, citing, in particular, Lamar's third album, To Pimp A Butterfly, which was released in March 2015, a couple of months after sessions began on Blackstar. "We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact that Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn't do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that's exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many ways, was to avoid rock and roll." Another album which had caught Bowie's attention was D'Angelo's December 2014 release Black Messiah, whose eccentric fusions of soul, jazz and funk reflected the kind of experimental textures in which David had already been dabbling with "Sue".
To form the core band for the new sessions, Bowie enlisted the services of saxophonist and flautist Donny McCaslin and drummer Mark Guiliana - both of whom had already played on the original recording of "Sue" - and their colleagues, bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Lindner. This was the quartet that Bowie had first seen performing at the 55 Bar in June; all four had also played on McCaslin's 2012 album Casting For Gravity, to which David had been listening since the original "Sue" recording. In December 2014, Bowie sent an initial batch of demos to the four musicians in preparation for the commencement of recording in the New Year. "This is fresh. This came from a different space," Tony Visconti told Mojo. "If we'd used David's former musicians they would be rock people playing jazz...Having jazz guys play rock music turns it upside down."
Hiring a pre-existing outfit to play together on an album was an unusual departure for Bowie, whose traditional preference was for mixing and matching his players at will, but what he had seen at the 55 Bar had convinced him that he wanted to draw on the band's rapport and fluidity of style. "This is where David and Tony were smart because he made it less tricky to try and acquire studio chemistry," Tim Lefebvre later told The Observer. "He hired Donny's whole band. We walked in and we all already knew how to play together. So for David, there was no work involved in trying to establish a groove, because it was already there." Speaking to Premier Guitar, Lefebvre was at pains to point out that Bowie was still very much calling the shots. "Yes, he happened to hire a band that was a unit, but it's not like David simply inserted himself into our world. He demoed these things really well and could have had any studio musicians in the world play these songs. He just happened to want guys with chemistry playing them, so it was very cool."
Tony Visconti had nothing but praise for the quartet. "They can play something at the drop of a dime," he said later. "Jason was a godsend. We gave him some pretty far-out chords, but he brought a jazz sensibility to re-voice them...Also, Tim Lefebvre was just phenomenal to work with. He pretty much nailed every take right on the spot." As for Mark Guiliana, Visconti told Mojo: "The drummer is so totally into hip-hop music, and what you hear on this new album, you'd swear they were loops but he's playing live! Impeccable time-keeping and beautiful technique." Of the band in general, he added: "Their approach to the music was so refreshing. I looked forward to every day in the studio. Nothing was done recalling the past."
Recording got under way at Magic Shop in the first week of January 2015. It wasn't until the first studio day that Tim Lefebvre and Jason Lindner met their new employer. "He came in and introduced himself, Visconti and the great producer [and engineer on Blackstar] Kevin Killen," Lindner later recalled. "We just basically all met and he just said, 'Should we start with this song?'" A few days into the sessions David celebrated his 68th birthday. To mark the occasion Iman visited the studio, and the band treated Bowie to a suitably avant-garde rendition of "Happy Birthday".
Work was characteristically brisk, with many of the rhythm tracks being nailed in one or two takes. In addition to the songs that would make the final cut of Blackstar, Bowie and the band recorded several more tracks, including studio versions of numbers which were destined for inclusion in the Lazarus stage show. The January session yielded four pieces: "Lazarus" and "When I Met You" were tracked on January 3rd, followed by "'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore" (January 5th), and "No Plan" (January 7th). The original version of "'Tis A Pity", released as the B-side of "Sue" the previous year, had been performed single-handedly by David himself in his home studio, and his new demos were similarly polished pieces of work. "Some had lyrics, which is unusual," said Visconti. "He usually likes to keep that to the very end, but they were quite well formed and sophisticated."
"David recorded demos for all of these songs, most of which had electronic drum parts that he programmed," Mark Guiliana explained to Modern Drummer. "My goal was to bring these programmed parts to the acoustic kit and play them in the most organic and musical way that I could."
Characteristically, Bowie encouraged the musicians to bring their own ideas to the table. "He gave us the freedom to really just play, sort of be ourselves, and if we were hearing anything in particular, to try it out," Jason Lindner later explained to Rolling Stone, "But there's a fine line there. When you're in the studio with somebody like Bowie, or any high-level artist, you want to be aware of where the boundaries are of bringing yourself in and being true to the demo, and being a real sessions musician and nailing the part. Of course, that line moved as we all got more comfortable in the studio, but during the first week in January we were all trying to nail the demos."
Jason Lindner's synthesizer technique favoured an analogue approach, creating effects with guitar pedals rather than computer software: "I kind of use the Wurlitzer as my main keyboard, and kind of use it as a guitar in that I have a chain of pedals that I really love. I put it through that and it becomes part of the Wurlitzer sound. Actually, I would move that pedal chain to any instrument I would be tracking on, so I could have full flexibility with the use of those effects." In all, Lindner's set-up consisted of nine different keyboards, or "ten if you include the grand piano in the studio. They had something called a tack piano that has thumbtacks on all the hammers, which make a metallic sound when it hits strings. That was a little spinet they keep artfully out of tune."
Following the initial session in the first week of January 2015, recording continued in two further blocks, lasting between four to six days each, in the first week of February and the third week of March. Prior to each session, Bowie emailed the musicians a fresh set of demos. Present during the second of the three blocks was LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, whose co-production work on Arcade Fire's Reflektor had prompted David to invite him to create the lengthy remix of "Love Is Lost" which featured on The Next Day Extra. "Bowie said something like, 'We will have a new body in the studio as of Tuesday,'" Jason Lindner later recalled. "'He's a lovely bloke and he will get in the way and make lots of suggestions and we will have a ball.'"
"At one point we were talking about three producers for the album," Visconti later explained, "David, James and myself. He was there for a brief time, but he had his own projects to go off to." In the end Murphy's only credited contribution to Blackstar was some percussion on "Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)", tracked on February 2nd, and "Girl Loves Me" (February 3rd), although he was also present for the recording of "Someday" (February 4th) and "Dollar Days" (February 6th). "His role was never really defined," said Guiliana. "He brought in some synths and some percussion and had a ton of ideas." Among the toys that Murphy brought to the studio was an EMS briefcase synthesizer, a close relative of the kind used on the Berlin albums and later on Heathen; at the time of the Blackstar sessions Bowie's own model, gifted to him in 1999 by Brian Eno, happened to be busy touring the world as an exhibit in the V&A's David Bowie is. "A couple of overdubs of my parts were filtered through this thing," explained Jason Lindner. "It had an amazing effect. I know it is one of Jame's favourite things in the world. These are extremely rare and extremely expensive now."
Joining the third block of sessions for six days in late March was guitarist Ben Monder ("Ben is very jazz," said Visconti, "extremely jazz, very dark jazz"). Like Donny McCaslin and Mark Guiliana, he had played on the original recording of "Sue", and his enlistment for the Blackstar sessions was at McCaslin's suggestion. "The environment was really, really positive," said Monder. "David truly respected what other people have to offer - he wasn't a control freak in the slightest and really wanted to work with his collaborators. And Tony is the same way.
The third block got underway with the tracking of "Blackstar" (March 20th), followed by "I Can't Give Everything Away" (March 21st), and finally "Killing A Little Time" and a retake of "Someday", now retitled "Blaze" (March 23rd). Overdubs continued the following day.
Even for a veteran like Tony Visconti, working with the new band was an education. "Once during these sessions, I suggested that they play something traditional, just for an eight-bar break, and the energy just went so low, even just mentioning it," Visconti confessed to Mojo. "Even David glared at me, and I said, 'I'm sorry! It was just an idea...' They're into something so amazing that it's really outside the boundaries - the former boundaries - of jazz."
Anyone who has heard Donny McCaslin's albums will know that they defy easy categorisation, as do Ben Monder's solo releases, and Visconti's "outside the boundaries of jazz" comment is significant. This was by no means the first time that Bowie had shaken up his sound by recruiting an unfamiliar set of musicians, but Blackstar's line-up was a particularly radical move: Visconti aside, it was the first time that Bowie had made a complete break from the previous album's personnel since Tin Machine. The credentials of his new ensemble piqued the interest of critics, some of whom, in their attempts to slot Bowie's music into an easy pigeonhole - never a wise move - would end up peddling the notion that Blackstar was Bowie's 'jazz album'. Aficionados of jazz understandably found this assertion ridiculous, as did the band themselves. "The record has kind of been pitched as 'David Bowie hires a jazz quintet', but it's not really that at all," insisted Ben Monder. "It's not a jazz record in the slightest. And all of those guys, they're really versatile and I think their rock playing is as strong as any other aspect of their playing. They're known as improvising musicians, and they're known within the jazz umbrella more than anything else. But I think the songs really brought out their strengths as rock musicians." For Jason Lindner, "The feeling in the studio was like, 'This is rock and roll.' That's what I came away with. It has that energy, that rebellion and that intensity...Above and beyond a certain level of artistry, the genre just falls away completely when someone can be that intense as an artist."
During the Magic Shop sessions, Bowie sang live vocals while the band was playing. "He'd just go from zero to sixty once we walked out of the control room and into the studio," Guiliana told Rolling Stone. "And his vocal performances were always just stunning, amazing." Lindner concurred: "The first time we went into the studio together and he opened his mouth to sing on the first take, that's where it hit me. It was like, 'Holy shit, I'm really in the studio with a rock star now.' It doesn't hit you when you meet him. He's just a very elegant sort of gentleman. He was dressed casually and very nice, pretty normal." With the band's amps housed in soundproof enclosures, and Bowie himself shielded on three sides, it was possible to record live with minimal bleed - "well below the threshold that you would hear it in a mix," said Tony Visconti - so that it would be possible either to use David's live vocals or to replace them at a later date. "He didn't actually sing on the final takes," Visconti explained to me. "We were able to feed the original live vocal to the musicians to record subsequent takes, so the musicians could hear him on their headphones. David would be in the control room with me."
By all accounts, David was relaxed and happy in the studio. "He's a very funny guy," Lefebvre later told Mojo, "and if you say some stupid stuff he's gonna jump all over it. He's very sharp and witty." Ben Monder concurred, telling Yahoo Music: "He was a hilarious guy and really smart. At one point he did a funny X-rated spoof of his own Peter And The Wolf, which had us in stitches." On another occasion, Bowie halted proceedings to show the band a YouTube video which had recently become a viral hit: "Somebody did a series of music videos without the music," explained Monder. "Somebody did one of those for the video he did with Mick Jagger for "Dancing In The Street". There's no music, there's just footsteps and grunts and burps and stuff like that. He thought that was hilarious."
The completion of the tracking sessions in March proved to be among the last high-profile work to be carried out at Magic Shop, which would sadly fall victim to financial pressures and close its doors a year later. Meanwhile in April 2015, repeating the pattern established by The Next Day, the sessions moved to Human, the studio co-owned by Visconti's son Morgan. "That's where David did practically all of his vocals," Tony Visconti explained. Despite having sung live with the band during the Magic Shop sessions, Bowie re-recorded most of his Blackstar vocals from scratch at Human, as well as building up the complex multi-layered vocal harmonies which are among the album's defining characteristics. "He sounds really good when we do this effect called ADT, automatic double-tracking," explained Visconti. "Then we fooled around with some rippling repeat echoes. They're all custom -made effects."
"From what I understand, they re-did everything," said Jason Lindner, who had heard Bowie's original lead vocals during the tracking sessions, an experience he described as "an incredible privilege...we were completely blown away. He's just a super perfectionist. For him to just go in and kill it on vocals to where we're all just astounded, first take without any warming up, and go back and say, 'We're going to redo all the vocals. Those are just scratch vocals.' It was like, 'Wow'."
Some of Bowie's Magic Shop vocals were retained on the final cuts, including part of "I Can't Give Everything Away" recorded on March 21st, and the full vocal for "No Plan", recorded on January 7th and 10th. Everything else was re-recorded from scratch, beginning with the vocals for "Blackstar" (April 2nd-3rd and May 15th), followed by "Girl Loves Me" (April 16th and May 17th), "'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore" (April 20th and 22nd), "Lazarus" (April 23rd-24th and May 7th), "Sue" (April 23rd and 30th), "Dollar Days" (April 27th), "When I Met You" (May 5th), the rest of "I Can't Give Everything Away" (May 7th), "Killing A Little Time" (May 19th), and "Blaze" (May 22nd and 25th). "By June," said Visconti, "the album was finished."
When it came to the mix, Bowie threw in another curveball. "David and I were mixing in my studio," Visconti told Mojo, "and David says, 'Let's do this at Electric Lady. When I worked with Arcade Fire a couple of years ago, I loved that room'. But Electric Lady gave us a smaller analogue room; the room he wanted wasn't for hire because Tom Elmhirst leases it. He's mixing Adele, Frank Ocean...although he's British, he's the number one mixing engineer in the US. So we weren't getting anywhere in our little studio. We went to see Tom and he started playing some of his recent mixes. David took me aside: 'Do you mind if I ask Tom to mix the album?' I said, 'You go ahead'." In the event, Bowie and Visconti continued to oversee the mixing sessions and added their own input, but the 'final master mix' of Blackstar is credited to Elmhirst, whose work Visconti described as "exquisite...it's got a dazzling low end and all the dreamscapes are there too. David's voice sounds fabulous."
The band, too, were delighted with the finished album. "One thing that stands out to me is what we did - me, Tim, Mark and Jason," Donny McCaslin told The Observer. "It's not like it was this pre-programmed whatever. We were playing live, and we're playing off each other. You can hear the interaction and you can hear the spirit of the communication in these fantastic songs. And David, he's singing his tail off, and hearing it all together was really a thrill to me."
"Somehow the stars were really aligned for this record," said Jason Lindner, while Tony Visconti told Mojo: "I'm very proud of it. None of us was in our comfort zone, that's what's so good about the album." For McCaslin, the key lay in Bowie's creative fearlessness: "He's taking chances. He's such an artist, man. I hope I'm that way when I'm 68."
To design the cover and packaging of Blackstar, Bowie turned once again to Jonathan Barnbrook, whose work on The Next Day had provoked so much comment. "In this instance, we met and listened to the album together in New York and started to bounce ideas off each other, and it developed from that," Barnbrook told Creative Review. From these discussions emerged the first Bowie album sleeve not to feature an image of David himself. The cover of Blackstar is a simple five-pointed star: black on white for the CD, and an all-black cover with a cut-out star for the vinyl release, revealing the grooves of the record within. Regarded by many as a dead format only a few years earlier, vinyl was now enjoying an unprecedented resurgence among long-in-the-tooth audiophiles and cool teenagers alike. "Vinyl is in an interesting place at the moment, similar to letterpress where the craft and tactile quality of it is everything," Barnbrook explained, "So that's why the cover is cut away and you can see the physical record - the opposite of the digital download. I wanted to give it the feeling that it contained something quite threatening." On both sleeves, beneath the main image, a row of fragmented stars spell out the word "BOWIE".
In much of the initial publicity, and on the sleeve packaging itself, the title of both album and song were rendered as a black star symbol, rather than the word "Blackstar". According to Barnbrook, this idea originated from a conversation he had once had with William Burroughs: "I asked him about the future of typography and he said that letterforms would go back to hieroglyphs, similar to the ancient Egyptians. You can actually see it happening with the emoji, they are becoming very common with people creating whole narratives out of them, as well as using them in everyday communication...it was a way of being as minimal with the title as we were with the design and in doing so making it stand out from all of the other stuff you see around you."
On both CD and vinyl formats, the lyrics and liner notes are rendered in gloss black on matt black, some of them laid out to resemble constellations or zodiac signs, some accompanied by photographs taken by Jimmy King on the set of the "Blackstar" video, and some illustrated by further graphics including an optical-illusion grid which, according to Barnbrook, "is about how matter affects space-time". Alongside the lyrics of "Girl Loves Me" appears the famous plaque attached by NASA to its Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes, launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively, depicting a man and a woman greeting any extraterrestrial life which might intercept the craft. The inner sleeves of both the CD and vinyl packages also included a vista of space, while the vinyl format harboured an additional surprise which went unknown and undiscovered until several months after the album's release. It wasn't until May 2016 that fans discovered that the black background behind the vinyl sleeve's die-cut star is translucent, and when a light is shone from behind, the background transforms into a field of glowing stars, which fade once the light source is removed.
Another innovative strand of the Blackstar campaign was completed in December 2015 and would be launched the following February. Unbound: A Blackstar InstaMiniSeries was a sequence of sixteen film clips, each lasting only 15 seconds, which were serialised on Instagram. According to the publicity, Bowie permitted the creative team of Carolynn Cecilia and Nikki Borges to "create their own visual interpretations of the songs, with no limits or preconditions on his part." The handsomely shot and entertainingly obscurantist results were later uploaded to YouTube.
Preceded by the unveiling of the title track in November and "Lazarus" a week before Christmas, Blackstar was released on January 8th 2016, David's 69th birthday (and also, as keen Bowie-watchers pointed out, the very date on which Rutger Hauer's replicant character Roy Batty is activated in Blade Runner, one of David's favourite films). If reviews of The Next Day had been ecstatic, those for Blackstar were off the scale. In The Guardian, Alexis Petridis hailed "a rich, deep and strange album that feels like Bowie moving restlessly forward, his eyes fixed ahead: the position in which he's always made his greatest music." Mojo's Keith Cameron greeted a "brilliant, confounding record" and congratulated Bowie on "jettisoning his regular cohorts, whose safe pairs of hands might have taken these songs to a less visceral, more orthodox place, instead of this new frontier from which to contemplate inner space." Rolling Stone's David Fricke considered it "one of the most aggressively experimental records the singer has ever made...The album represents Bowie's most fulfilling spin away from glam-legend pop charm since 1977's Low. Blackstar is that strange, and that good." John Pareles in The New York Times found it a "strange, daring, ultimately rewarding album...at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, wilful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans." Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly observed that "Bowie has never been much of a nostalgic or a self-mythologiser; he can't be, really, when his vision beams so consistently in one direction: forward. Maybe that's why Blackstar feels so vital and arguably better than anything he's done in years."
The reviews of Blackstar which preceded the album's release were peppered with the customary attempts to cast the runes and decipher what the great man had on his mind this time around; several made mention of a red-herring notion which briefly did the rounds (suggested by Donny McCaslin in an interview, and swiftly denied by Bowie's spokespeople) that the title track was about the terrorist organisation ISIS. There was much admiring talk besides of the cryptic mysticism of "Blackstar", the knockabout slang of "Girl Loves Me", the obscure menace of "Sue", and the wistful beauty of "Dollar Days". What seems extraordinary with hindsight is that no reviewer in the mainstream media appeared to notice what was staring us all in the face: the theme that loomed balefully over Blackstar like the monolith in Kubrick's 2001. Three days after the album's release, suddenly and terribly, everything shifted into focus. On Monday, January 11th 2016, the world awoke to the news that David Bowie had died of cancer.
In the long years of silence preceding David's comeback with The Next Day in 2013, rumours had sprung up that he was seriously unwell - rumours which had turned out to be unfounded and untrue. This time around, the situation was precisely the opposite. The Next Day had so triumphantly abolished all the idle gossip that there was no longer any media speculation about Bowie's health. But fate is cruel: unknown to anyone outside a handful of friends and family, in mid-2014 David was diagnosed with cancer. By the time the Blackstar sessions began in January 2015, he had been undergoing chemotherapy, for some time, and he arrived on the first day of recording with no hair on his head. "He just came fresh from a chemo session," Tony Visconti later told Rolling Stone, "and there was no way he could keep it a secret from the band. He told me privately, and I really got choked up when we sat face to face talking about it." Like everyone involved in the making of Blackstar, the musicians respected Bowie's privacy; he explained to them on the first day of recording that he was unwell, and the subject was not mentioned thereafter. "He was so brave and courageous," said Visconti, "and his energy was still incredible for a man who had cancer. He never showed any fear. He was just all business about making the album."
As 2015 progressed, David showed signs of responding well to his treatment. By the time of the third studio session in March, his hair had returned and there was no outward sign that he was unwell; guitarist Ben Monder, who joined the sessions that month, knew nothing of David's illness. "I thought he looked great," Monder later said. "He looked really healthy. He was full of energy. He was singing great. He was in good spirits...There was nothing to indicate that he was sick. I'm glad not to have known, but it just made it much more of a shock when I found out later." Monder's final day in the studio, March 24th 2015, was the last day that he would see David.
"He was optimistic because he was doing the chemo and it was working," Visconti told Rolling Stone in 2016, "and at one point in the middle of last year, he was in remission. I was thrilled. And he was a bit apprehensive. He said, 'Well, don't celebrate too quickly. For now, I'm in remission, and we'll see how it goes.' And he continued the chemotherapy. So I thought he was going to make it." But in November 2015, not long after shooting the "Lazarus" video, Bowie informed Visconti that the cancer had returned. "It had spread all over his body, so there's no recovering from that."
The timing and circumstances of Blackstar's release were so extraordinary that there's an understandable temptation to romanticise the entire episode, to imagine that David stage-managed the release to coincide with his final exit. The truth is rather less pat and altogether more melancholy: there is every indication that the rapidity of David's final decline was quite unexpected. Towards the end of 2015 he had been writing new songs and recording home demos, and on the opening night of Lazarus in December he told the show's director Ivo van Hove that it was time to begin work on a second musical. Just a week before he died, he contacted Tony Visconti to tell him that he wanted to make another album. "I was thrilled," Visconti told Rolling Stone, "and I thought, and he must have thought, that he'd have a few months, at least. So the end must have been very rapid. I'm not privy to it. I don't know exactly, but he must've taken ill very quickly after that phone call."
And so David Bowie's final album is Blackstar, and a more appropriate, dramatic and beautiful finale it would be difficult to imagine. Twenty years earlier, as he was approaching his fiftieth birthday, Bowie was asked by Q's David Cavanagh if he was thinking about his death. "I don't think there's been a time when I haven't," he responded. "It was ennobled with a romantic, cavalier attitude when I was much younger, but it was still there. Now it's measured with rationality. I know that this life is finite and I have to accept that." Pressed on whether he believed in an afterlife, he ventured: "I believe in a continuation, kind of a dream-state without the dreams. Oh, I don't know. I'll come back and tell you."
Blackstar, like Heathen and Reality and Diamond Dogs and Hunky Dory and just about every record that Bowie ever made, is an album that looks death in the face and doesn't flinch. All of David's pet themes are gathered up in these seven songs of hope and regret, sex and violence, mystique and mischief, death and eschatology. Although musically it's a work of great variety, there's an overall harmony of structure which had occasionally eluded its predecessor: while The Next Day is a long album of short tracks, Blackstar is a short album of long ones. The music is lavish, widescreen and expansive, but never remotely self-indulgent. Not a moment is wasted and nothing outstays its welcome. In its formal arrangement as a coherent musical work, it's one of Bowie's most perfectly constructed albums.
"I remember really loving the songs the way they were when he brought them into the studio," Ben Monder told Premier Guitar after David had died. "They were inspired and unique, with tightly crafted yet odd structures, and they offered lots of ways to dig into them. Speaking more as a fan than as a participant, when I finally heard the record I was taken with its dark beauty and with what a great job they did with the production. I found it simultaneously raw, elegant, and intense, but I didn't see it as more than a collection of great songs. With his death, it has obviously broadened into a beautiful, self-penned epitaph. As poetic a farewell message as I've ever heard - poignant, but oblique and challenging enough that it really penetrates to our core. David is an example of an artist going to the limits of his imagination, and having the courage and genius to bring his discoveries to life. And he did this consistently for decades. How could that not be inspiring?"
"Who knows if he meant for it to be this way," Tim Lefebvre mused, "but it sure looks like he did...The references to his own mortality, the symbolism in the "Lazarus" video - it's all spelt out. And he went out in a ball of flames."
"I think he thought if he was going to die, this would be a great way to go," Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone. "This would be a great statement to make."
In the days following David's death, there was understandably a surge of interest in his music in general and Blackstar in particular. By January 12th 2016, on both iTunes and Spotify David Bowie had become the number one artist in the world, thousands of points ahead of the nearest contenders, Justin Bieber and Adele. In the UK charts published on January 15th, no fewer than nineteen Bowie albums had entered the top 100. A fortnight later there were twelve Bowie albums in the UK top 40: the only other artist who had ever achieved this was Elvis Presley. Five of them were in the top ten. Around the world, it was a similar story, and in pole position was Blackstar itself, which debuted at number 1 in Britain and topped the charts in dozens of other countries, becoming the highest-selling album in the world for two weeks running. In the UK it spent three weeks at number 1, a feat unmatched by a Bowie album since Let's Dance. In Portugal, it topped the chart for six weeks, and in Croatia for a remarkable twelve. In the USA Blackstar debuted at number 1, finally giving David the American chart-topper that had always eluded him. How he would have loved that.
David Bowie's final testament is a consolidation and an apotheosis of the music he had been making all his life. Broodings on dissolution and death had been constants in his work since the earliest days, and to characterise Blackstar as Bowie's "death album" would be as glib and unhelpful as labelling it his "jazz album"; there's so much more to it than that. There can certainly be no denying that the lyrics burn with intimations of mortality: one way or another every song alludes to death, and several speak of departure and impermanence, of thwarted hopes, of things going wrong, of time, running out. Like a painter's memento mori, "skull designs" turn up in the lyric of "I Can't Give Everything Away", just as they do in the videos of "Blackstar" and "Lazarus". With its bluebirds and English evergreens, with it's "endless faith in hopeless deeds", and with its dreams of transcendence and flight, Blackstar pulses with a sense of yearning, a desperate reaching out, a continuing prayer for some kind of atonement or revelation, even at this late stage. "I've got nothing left to lose," David sings at one point. As on Heathen, he is clearly taking some of his cues from Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, the composition of another dying man, and a work which Bowie once described as being of "monumental" importance to him.
But there's a crucial difference between the songs on Blackstar and the meditations on mortality that we find elsewhere in Bowie's late period. Powerful, brooding songs like "Bring Me The Disco King" and "Heathen (The Rays)", both the work of a man who was growing older but faced no immediate calamity, are unmitigated in their despair. What is remarkable about Blackstar, the work of a man who now knows that he is dying, is that the howling anguish and grief of those earlier songs is nowhere to be found. Even at its most solemn and serious, Blackstar is an album possessed of a new kind of serenity, not only in its lyrics but in its achingly beautiful melodies and its lovely, labyrinthine harmonics. The songs are exquisite. The band plays them with such emotion, and Bowie sings with such extraordinary depth of feeling, that the overwhelming sensations are not of fear and despair, but of transcendence and triumph - and crucially, at every step of the way, of twinkling good humour. David Bowie never lost his keen sense of the absurd, and on Blackstar it is as lively as ever, undercutting and sharpening the album's darker tones. There's nothing po-faced or portentous about lines as unashamedly silly as "I was looking for your ass" and "Man, she punched me like a dude". The creeping barrage of nadsat in "Girl Loves Me" is not the work of an artist who is taking himself too seriously, nor is the mischievous wordplay in the central section of "Blackstar", further heightened by David's puckish preening and strutting in the video; nor yet the irresistible audacity of bringing down the final curtain with a song called "I Can't Give Everything Away". The doom and gloom and dark majesty of Blackstar only reflect one facet of its beguiling power: just as important are its wit and its warmth, that old gnomic laughter echoing through the album with malapert self-mockery, even in the face of oblivion.
"Ain't that just like me?" Indeed it is. How very like David Bowie to confront the final challenge that he faced - the final challenge that we will all face - and to look it in the eye with that penetrating, inquisitive, unflinching gaze of his, and to turn it into something so complex, so deep and dark, so colourful and funny, so humane, so important and so beautiful. Blackstar is a masterpiece. It stands with the very finest of David Bowie's work.