Sunday, January 1, 2017

Bowie's "Blackstar" and the Zeitgeist of Loss

A little over a year ago, the rumors surrounding the avant-garde New York musicians that Bowie had called on to be his studio band for his upcoming release gave me the sense that he was up to something. Curious and immobilized by holiday traffic in the Barton Creek Mall parking lot, I pushed play on the video for Blackstar when it appeared in my Facebook feed.  I was flabbergasted by what I heard.

This first “single” was a ten minute track beginning with sinister overtones, opening up into shimmering glam-rock and ending with a dark recapitulation. The track clearly suggested that Bowie was pushing himself into new terrain while maintaining a toe hold on his past, while the video's occult overtones had no precedent in his oeuvre of which I was aware.

The prog nut in me immediately took notice. At the time, of course, I did not have any idea what the impetus was for his new direction. A few weeks later, Blackstar was released to critical accolades, and two days after that, David Bowie succumbed to what was revealed to be a long battle with cancer. Then the release of Lazarus as a second “single” made his intentions uncomfortably clear.

On its own, Lazarus might rank among the best songs that Bowie has ever written, but the video, framed in the context of his recent passing, was a powerful, haunting curtain call that revealed in no uncertain terms the way that he was dealing with his imminent demise. It succeeded in bringing into sharp relief a sentiment that Tool only outlines. It blew me away.

I added Blackstar to the rotation shortly after it's release, but I admit, I was apprehensive about publicly forming an opinion.  I sidestepped the issue by writing around the album rather than about my first impressions.  I felt very strongly that as a reflective examination on mortality, Blackstar was, at the very least, an artfully framed statement, made even more compelling by the timing of its release

Then the move happened, and by March the Blackstar CD got put in a box of “current listening” albums that was to be the first that I opened when the opportunity arose, which ended up being November. I returned it to regular rotation and found that the album seemed even more relevant than ever. Bowie had inadvertently been the herald of a generation of entertainers, capturing a sense of nostalgia, longing, sadness, and ultimately, acceptance that reverberated throughout 2016.

Finally, on New Year’s eve, we had some family friends over, and it was suggested that we create a playlist representing all of the musicians that passed on throughout the year. With only a couple of hours left in the year, however, I decided that the task was too big to be completed to my satisfaction. My solution was to play Blackstar, because to me it captures the zeitgeist of loss that pervaded the entire year, and it seemed fitting to allow Bowie to have the last word. As the clock came close to midnight, the album’s final track seemed to carry more weight than usual.

I wish that I could say with some confidence that 2017 will be an improvement over 2016. To be realistic, though, our heroes are only human, and their time with us is precious and limited. There will be more to come, and social media standards will ensure that no passing will go unnoticed. Bowie, however, was honest enough to have the last word on his death, brave enough to share it, and smart enough to frame it in the art that was his life.

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