“Something happened on the day he died; spirit rose a metre and stepped aside…”
We are all now sadly in a world without David Bowie, a world that he helped shape and make happier and stranger and safer, for people who were compelled to live in a way that may not have been accepted or understood without a pioneer as singularly creative, driven or sympathetic as he was. A world that now has to go on alone and learn to express itself the way he was never afraid to.
But as we all now realise he had a parting gift, ★; an album that before Monday was just another creative milestone in a revitalised career but has now become David Bowie’s eulogy and final goodbye to us all. “Ain’t that just like me?”
Although ★ flirts with jazz more than any other Bowie album, the musical ghosts of albums past echo throughout as if his career were flashing before his eyes; the title track brings him back through the piano-led pop of Hunky Dory and settles into a distinctly unsettled groove that easily could’ve fit on the cocaine-fuelled Station to Station; the track “Girl Loves Me” combines A Clockwork Orange slang with hip-hop to bring a distinctly British and unmistakably Bowie spin to a distinctly American art form the way Young Americans and Earthling did funk and industrial respectively; the gorgeous album closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” samples the harmonica from “A New Career in a New Town”; even Donny McCaslin’s saxophone that runs throughout hearkens back to the instrument Bowie started on.
But despite the recurrence of familiar sounds ★ still manages to offer some surprises. “Lazarus” is a slow-burning jazz ballad, a sedate and steady drum beat supporting an athletic bassline and slow, sad horn lines, building to a defiant climax at the halfway mark. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, named for the controversial John Ford play, explores the attitude of WWI soldiers to the sex workers they frequented and sets the ugly misogyny and hypocrisy of the narrator against an equally discomfiting fever dream of the swing music that soundtracked it. “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)”, a modern retelling of the same play’s plot, is a gritty and bluesy exercise in drum n’ bass with Bowie sounding like modern day Scott Walker or, at his peak of anguish, a character out of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.
But the real brilliance and pain of ★ comes in Bowie’s lyrics, which in light of his passing are heartbreaking and could be nothing but prophetic. “Dollar Days” is a gorgeous ballad, made all the more tragic for Bowie trying to come to terms with not only his own mortality but all the parts of him he leaves behind before he can make his peace with them; his constant desire to reinvent himself and to create (“I’m dying to push their backs against the grain/and fool them all again and again”), his fans (“don’t think that I’ve forgotten you”), even the place he was born (“if I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/it’s nothing to me”), and as he goes from “walking down” to “falling down” sadly accepts that even though so much of his life’s work is left undone or unfulfilled it will soon be over. On “Lazarus” he is more accepting, calling to us from heaven and leaving his earthly possessions to be free, “just like that bluebird”; the ultimate Lazarus figure is finally free from resurrection.
But not without a fight, and the album’s closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, an agitated but unbearably gorgeous song is the perfect kissoff to a life and career that was so devoted to creativity and theatricality. Bowie was so kind and brilliant to give us all as much as he did but there was so much more of him to give; on the other hand, as someone who felt so much more at home onstage than off there was so much of him that he honestly could not give away, so much left unsaid or unexpressed that now will remain with him forever. But he finally asks to be seen as himself and not one of his many personas over nearly 50 years: “Seeing more and feeling less/Saying no but meaning yes/this is all I ever meant/that’s the message that I sent”.
David Bowie spent so much of his life and career in a perpetual state of death and rebirth, and those ideas are everywhere on this album, which he knew would be his last. But even though this death seems so much more final and tragic he will be reborn forever in the hearts and minds of the people who loved him, the musicians whose roads were paved by him and a world that was so much brighter with him in it.
We love you David. We all love you so much.




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