David Bowie looks like a creepy cult leader now, and it's great.
Let me preface my review of David Bowie's new Blackstar by saying that there's no way I wasn't going to like this album. I am so enamored with Bowie that if he released a literal heaping pile of garbage, I would defend it to the death as a work of creative genius even as the stench threatened to knock me unconscious. But luckily for me (and for the world, really), Blackstar is anything but trash. It's a master class in what all aging rock stars should do: go completely bonkers.
The first big sign of the Starman's beautiful impending insanity was the ten-minute short film he released in November as the music video for Blackstar's title track. It flashes between cultish rituals, men being crucified in burlap masks, and a woman with a tail in space. Taken as a whole, the album complements this vision perfectly. At this stage in his career, Bowie could easily get by putting out a few jangly pop tunes a la Paul McCartney. Or he could just disappear completely. Instead, he's become the conductor of a space orchestra that's set up shop in the haunted grounds of what used to be a circus.
"Lazarus," the album's second single, comes from a new musical of the same name that Bowie cowrote, based on the 1963 Walter Tevis sci-fi novel The Man Who Fell to Earth (Bowie starred in the 1976 movie version, at his most gaunt and in some ways most otherworldly). The Thin White Duke influence on the track is undeniable; play it back-to-back with "Station to Station" and you'll hear similarities in their hollow echoes and steady drum lines. But on "Lazarus" we get a Bowie who's weathered not from doing too much cocaine in Berlin but from living a long, rich life: "Look up here, I'm in heaven / I've got scars that can't be seen / I've got drama, can't be stolen / Everybody knows me now." Of course, not everything on the album is so derivative of Bowie's earlier work, because with him nothing ever is. "Girl Loves Me" is very nearly a hip-hop song, down to the declaration "Who the fuck's gonna mess with me?"
In my mind, the narrative of Blackstar is about a meeting of all Bowie's past personas, where they reminisce over a few cups of ayahuasca tea (not that I know what that's like, mom). After reliving a few old stories with a freshly enlightened perspective, the gang rides the hallucinatory high to a crazy new adventure, only to realize they're actually just a bunch old men in sequined jumpsuits who have to know when to ease off on the throttle. While I'd love for Bowie to make more music, the album's final track, "I Can't Give Everything Away," feels very much like it's coming from an old man who wants to quit while he's (way) ahead.
In the grand scheme of the Bowieverse, Blackstar is an album that I reckon will rank near the top when he's dead and gone. Nearly half a century after his debut LP, at the age of 69 years exactly, Bowie has proved that he's still as strong a creative force as ever. Who the fuck's gonna mess with him indeed.