David Bowie shared his mystifying new album Blackstar on Friday, Jan. 8. By Sunday, he was gone.
Yesterday (Jan. 10), Bowie succumbed to an 18-month battle with cancer and passed away peacefully, surrounded by family. His 25th studio album broods on life, death, and what comes after. It’s self-aware and existential. Bowie did virtually no promotion behind Blackstar, but he did play a bandaged, hospitalized man with buttons for eyes in the video for its song “Lazarus,” named after the man Jesus brought back from the dead in the Bible. The video opens with the couplet, “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”
This was more than an album released on the artist’s 69th birthday; it was a goodbye note to the world, all who could not be at his side when he died in Manhattan. Bowie knew the time was near. For “Lazarus,” he danced and writhed about a hospital set — during a period that probably found him spending a significant amount of time in a real hospital.
“His death was no different from his life — a work of art,” longtime producer Tony Visconti said in tribute. “He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it.”
Bowie hid himself from the world, only showing himself when he needed to be seen. He didn’t perform live during his last decade. He didn’t do press. But Visconti and his other collaborators passed along the gospel.
Johan Renck directed Bowie’s final two videos, “Lazarus” and “Blackstar.” “I’ve basically touched the sun,” he confessed prior to Bowie’s death. “One could only dream about collaborating with a mind like that… I have no desire to do any more videos knowing the process never ever gets as formidable and fulfilling as this was.”
Bowie’s first album was released 1967. He not only released music over nearly five decades but kept us mesmerized throughout. Musicians frequently write about death, but few have done so as directly or deliberately as Bowie on his swan song.
Somehow, he looked forward, too. The jazz influences on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly fascinated Bowie, and he let one of 2015’s most loved albums guide his own. Bowie’s story has been told, but Blackstar is an open-ended elegy, one that urges us to experiment onward.