It's fitting that an icon who exploded into the music world during the golden age of prog rock and concept albums would manage to release what is in some ways the ultimate concept album just three days before his death at the age of 69.
Indeed, Blackstar is largely a reflection on death—David Bowie's own. Many of its lyrics only make sense if heard as the collective swan song of a musician who'd been secertly battling liver cancer for 18 months and was on the very threshold of dying.
Bowie's 25th album in a career that spanned 49 years and straddled six decades finds the English singer recapitulating his signature blend of avant-garde jazz-rock sounds, mingling them freely—and often inscrutably—with lyrics about life and love and sex and drugs and peace and regret … and death.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
"Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" partially focuses on a desperate man's attempts to take care of his wife, who's terminally ill. Still, he puts on a brave face and hopes for the best. "Sue, I got a job," he tells her, "We'll buy the house/You'll need to rest/But now we'll make." The second stanza's similarly upbeat: "Sue, the clinic called/The X-ray's fine/I brought you home/I just said home!" The end, however, Sue dies despite her partner's tender care ("I kissed your face/I touched your face/Sue, good-bye").
Grief, loss and denial likewise permeate "Dollar Days." "If I never see the English evergreens I'm running to," Bowie tries to convince us, "it's nothing to me." Later he adds, "It's all gone wrong, but on and on/the bitter nerve ends never end/I'm falling down/Don't believe for just one second I'm forgetting you/I'm trying to/I'm dying to," with the last two mournful lines being repeated throughout the song.
"Blackstar" is reportedly about the extremist Muslim group ISIS. Against a backdrop of hypnotic, vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding music, we hear, "On the day of execution/Only women kneel and smile, ah ah, ah ah/At the center of it all, at the center of it all/Your eyes." Perhaps referring to another martyr (or perhaps to himself as a famous pop star … or perhaps both), Bowie sings, "Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside/Somebody else took his place and bravely cried." Later the song ponders our broken, confusing world as Bowie notes, "We were born upside-down …/Born the wrong way 'round."
The biblically titled "Lazarus" articulates Bowie's longing for freedom, heaven and life after death: "Look up here, I'm in heaven/ … This way or no way/You know I'll be free." And the fact that he climbs into a wardrobe at the end of the song's accompanying video and shuts the door could be seen as a nod to C.S. Lewis' famous reference to that bedroom furniture in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That said …
Bowie's own spiritual beliefs were notoriously fluid. In 2004, he told Ellen DeGeneres that he'd experimented with many different belief systems before apparently rejecting them all: "I was young, fancy free and Tibetan Buddhism appealed to me at that time. I thought, 'There's salvation.' It didn't really work. Then I went through Nietzsche, Satanism, Christianity … pottery, and ended up singing. It's been a long road." Apart from a saving faith in Christ—which there's not unequivocal evidence of in his life—Bowie's hope for heaven and peace was in vain.
Despite the back-from-the-dead spiritual allusions in its title, "Lazarus" also alludes to Bowie's well-chronicled pursuit of fleshly indulgences. "By the time I got to New York," Bowie sings, "I was living like a king/Then I used up all my money/I was looking for your a--." Elsewhere in the song, we hear what might or might not be an admission to drug usage (though Bowie has said that he was drug-free by the late 1970s): "I've got nothing left to lose/I'm so high it makes my brain whirl."
"Blackstar" seems to flirt deliberately and blasphemously with Jewish and Christian religious sensibilities when Bowie proclaims, "I'm the great I am (I'm a blackstar)."
"Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" ends bleakly with the man who's cared for his dying beloved discovering after the fact that she'd been secretly in love with someone else. "Sue, I found your note/That you wrote last night/It can't be right/You went with him/ … I'm such a fool."
F-word filled and often nonsensical (at least without interpretive help) "Girl Loves Me" profanely laments the swift passage of time, with Bowie repeatedly asking, "Where the f--- did Monday go?" "Dollar Days" includes this line, "We b--ches tear our magazines" and mentions "survival sex honor stretching tails to necks." "'Tis Pity She Was a Whore," a song reportedly about the carnage of World War I (though there are no clear references to that subject matter in the song itself) includes a crude reference to the male anatomy.
If there's one word that encapsulates David Bowie's career, perhaps the best one available is provocateur. The man born David Robert Jones spent nearly five decades juxtaposing controversial and conflicting images and ideas—be they sexual, spiritual, cultural or political—against the status quo of the day. Bowie pioneered the intertwined concepts of gender and sexual fluidity, for example, before those once countercultural ideas even had official names to go with them.
It's no surprise, then, that Blackstar finds Bowie reprising his role of cultural provocateur practically until the moment of his death. Indeed, it's almost as if he wanted to turn his parting itself into one last shocking bit of performance art. On the threshold of leaving his mortal coil behind forever, Bowie delivers one last jazzily jumbled extravaganza of imagery, talking about heaven and peace one moment, and lusting after a woman's backside the next.
In the end, it's exactly the kind of album we've come to expect from an artist who said back in 2002, "My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety—all of the high points of one’s life.”