There are many David Bowies. The first one to draw me in had fluorescent sneakers and a patterned jumpsuit under a canary yellow trench coat. He sprang about with a pastel-clad, mulleted Mick Jagger in the video for their cover of ‘Dancing in the Street‘. It was my favourite song for a few months in 1985, a year when the nine-year-old me first became aware of pop music beyond what my parents played. I’d heard of Bowie and Jagger, and heard the original version of the song, but this was the first time I noticed them singing to me.
Three decades later, David Bowie is dead. In that time I’ve gone forwards and backwards with him, and have more than enough favourite David Bowies. They’ve come and gone at different times in my life, some adored and others never quite clicking with me. Two days before Bowie’s death on January 10 of this year, he released a final version of himself for the world to interpret.
It’s taken me some time to face David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. My initial response to the news of his death was to listen again to his older classics from the seventies and early eighties. While I’d admired the elder statesman Bowie of more recent years, I’d never felt an urgency to hear what he had to say on record. I tried his previous album The Next Day, from 2013, but didn’t feel compelled to listen again. Maybe I was being unfair to it but it didn’t spark any interest in me beyond the fact of being a new David Bowie album. At first I felt the same way about Blackstar, but Bowie’s death, and the knowledge that he knew he was dying as he recorded it, shifted my perspective. Still, it took me several months to confront it.
The first thing to notice about Blackstar is that it isn’t pop and it isn’t rock, at least not in the ways that Bowie’s music has been in the past. It feels personal, without the theatricality of a career of changes. This is Bowie turning to face the strange front on, with strength and intense honesty.
Or maybe it’s not at all. Maybe that’s all in my head, knowing what I do about the album’s circumstances. I’ll never know how I would have reacted to this album outside of the context of Bowie’s death. A lyric like “look up here, I’m in heaven” from ‘Lazarus’ could come from any of the aliens of Bowie’s past, but how can I not take it literally now?
Of course, it’s futile for me to try and hear it any other way. It’s tied to the circumstances I’ve heard it in, like the song that played when I first kissed a girl, or the one that made me pull over and cry on the way to my cousin’s funeral. Blackstar is full of strength and honesty because David Bowie has always been strong and honest, whether he was a starman or a hero or asking us to dance. I hear in it what I’ve heard from so much of Bowie’s music, something I wanted to hear from him again, but feared that I wouldn’t: “Oh no love! You’re not alone.”