One thing that struck reviewers who were grappling with Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album, was how tricky it was to interpret lyrically. Kitty Empire, writing in the Observer, described it as elliptical, while the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis wrote that the album “seems to offer those attempting to unravel his lyrics a wry ‘best of luck with that’”.
What the critics didn’t know, however, was that the man behind it had been diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago, and that he knew his life was coming to an end. If this had been common knowledge, they would all no doubt have looked at Blackstar in a different light. Was David Bowie saying goodbye on it? And does it seem obvious now that he has died?
I Can’t Give Everything Away, the album’s final track, is perhaps the most potent song to re-examine. “I know something is very wrong,” he begins, then sings: “The blackout hearts, the flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes.” The sense that Bowie has an unhappy secret he desperately wishes he could share is reaffirmed in the chorus: “I can’t give everything away.”
On Dollar Days, Bowie could be singing about an afterlife, or some kind of spiritual connection to his homeland: “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me.” The songs Tis a Pity She Was a Whore and Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) may be based around a 17th-century John Ford play, but it’s interesting to think about why this appealed to Bowie. The latter song contains lines such as “The clinic called, the x-ray’s fine, I brought you home,” as well as references to tombstones and death.
Before the album was released there was much talk about how the title track was inspired by the Islamic State – a fair enough assessment given the references to “executions” and the fact that Donny McCaslin, the jazz musician who helped shape Blackstar’s sound, had hinted as much in an interview. But this also has allusions to saviour myths and what we leave behind when we’re gone. “I’m not a pop star,” sings Bowie at one point. “I’m a blackstar.” It seems to set out his desire to be regarded as something beyond just a flash-in-the-pan fad, as Martin Amis wrong-headedly suggested Bowie was in a 1973 New Statesman piece. The album’s cover art, a solitary black star, was the first Bowie release that did not feature his image, and it seems to complete this symbolic journey from one world to another.
‘An extraordinary, alien, otherworldly creature’: David Bowie 1947-2016 –
And then there’s Lazarus, Blackstar’s second and most recent single. Revisiting it, in the wake of the sad news, it seems to be another explicit farewell song: “Look up here,” he begins, “I’m in heaven.” What a staggering first line for someone who knew their time was coming to an end to write: to know that he would soon be singing it to his fans from beyond the grave.
The last line – “Oh, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Oh, I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me” – also seems explicit, viewing death in a positive light, as a release from his illness. (This reminded me of Charles Bukowski’s poem Bluebird, which also used the bird as a symbol for captivity and release.)
The song is, of course, named after Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus brings back from the dead in the Gospel of John. It’s easy to see why Bowie would be fascinated by the idea of cheating mortality. On Dollar Days, he could even be referencing it when he sings: “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain / And fool them all again and again.”
It is something Bowie’s fans seemed to have also considered. There’s been an outpouring of shock and surprise at his death, not because, at 69, he was relatively young, but because people seemed to ascribe higher powers to him. As if this pop genius would have somehow twigged a way of escaping death. As if we would somehow still be hearing Bowie albums, beamed in via holographic afterlife, in 3016.
If that was one trick even he couldn’t pull off, then we can be sure of something: as Bowie’s influence stretches far and wide, seeping into the work of those whose lives he touched, we will get to see him reborn countless times over the coming decades.