I was never a major Bowie aficionado, but at some point started feeling strangely attracted to his later works. The Next Day was a conundrum: Baudrillard’s “After the Orgy” lurking around the album title, Barnbrook’s sleeve design and Oursler’s video both ballsy drafts of toughened up melancholia and regret. Ageing gracefully, it seemed; at long last, after the successive post-Let’s Dance cul-de-sacs.
A year or so later the single Sue: edgy and rigorously disjointed, it confirmed a franctic precision in the vision being pursued. Where was this renewed clarity sprouting from, and why?
And then came Blackstar… and Blackstar won me over instantly. When the 10-minute single and video came out less than two months ago, I thought: “this is exactly what mainstream pop needs to be in 2015”. There was a wise, worn-out, restless energy that is of the now, a call into a vortex of inevitability.
But underneath the intellectual decipherment, we could sense something different about Blackstar. We somehow agreed it was a statement on the end of an era, of the civilisational paradigm that governed us, shaped us post-WW2 – and the void ahead – yet there was an otherworldy allure in the video and the song that placed itself beyond translation. The Blade-Runner-sounding transition starting at 4:00 is probably the moment when this “other” shines brightest, when the foreboding darkness gives way to a miraculous transcendence beyond grasp.
Yes, this era that is collapsing in front of our very eyes was embodied by (counter-)cultural icons of stature and resonance that are themselves fading out, one by one (Oh, Lemmy…). But on Blackstar, we now know, Bowie was speaking in the first person. In an age of endless possibilities, it took a frail pop aristocrat to remind us we must remain fearless and radical in our acts of creation. And how easy it is today to confuse courage with pedestrian, hallucinatory eccentricity. He knew, the way one knows when finitude is no longer an abstract concept and begins to eat one’s insides.
In the end, a brutal layer was supposed to be added to the interpretation of Bowie’s latest (and now we know, final) opus. And blimey, it was all there, crystal clear for all to see – the evasive replies as to the subject of Blackstar, Major Tom’s corpse on the video. The crucified jesters, the roaming ghost of antifluff.
Then the parting statement, just last week, in the shape of the Lazarus video, as literal as it could possibly get… and we still didn’t get it. It’s amazing how blind we choose to be in face of what we cannot process.
[post under live revision as I further reflect on the news.]