The Great Avatar is Gone: A Review of David Bowie’s Blackstar

Stephen L Kanaval |

David Bowie’s most recent album Black Star has a track titled “Lazarus” and a line, which he sings ever so hauntingly, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” The lyrics and the video that accompanies the song sound like a man who knew he did not have much time left. In a clever twist by Bowie, the actor Michael C. Hall, the star of the series Dexter, performed the song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Hall plays the lead character, Thomas Jerome Newton, in Bowie’s own play “Lazarus”. Newton is an alien who has delighted in the pleasures of Earth and is now reflecting from a high penthouse. The song and the entirety of the album are cadenced by a moody saxophone played by Donny McCaslin. Bowie biographers always reference Bowie’s half-brother, Terry Burns, for introducing him to jazz. Burns suffered from schizophrenia and eventually committed suicide by stepping in front of a commuter train in 1985. This album seems like hollow of voices and the moody sax seems to be a kind of lament and echo of weariness.

This album makes me reflect on the Bowie albums of the 1970s: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Low, Aladdin Sane, and The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie’s mercurial selves from the glamorous Thin White Duke, to the glittering Ziggy Stardust or even Jareth the Goblin King seem to culminate in this album like a walk through a hall of mirrors with the steady drumbeat of the title track leading you to an inner temple. Bowie sings through abstract feedback, “In the villa of Ormen, stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah.” Bowie sings powerfully like an occult god giving a warning and each ending line repeating, “I’m a Blackstar, I’m a Blackstar.” David Bowie seems to take on his final guise in the inner darkness, his final avatar—a dim mask.

The jazz in Blackstar is modern, abstract, and uneasy. The punching drum runs and the saxophone screeches create a texture of dread and awakening. The David Bowie of Blackstar is a figure speaking to us from space. He tells us not to question, he laughs at us, and advises us with riddles behind swirling smoke and codes of jazz lines. This great and messianic Bowie, this last Bowie showed how well he understood where music was now. Bowie clearly had listened to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a poetic and improvisational rap-jazz fusion album and this was confirmed in a Rolling Stone article. Bowie surprised with this album and the use of free-form jazz was forward-thinking and a fitting atmosphere for a final album. He has only further stamped his place in the halls of the great ones. Rest in peace.

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