An Artist’s Palimpsest: Otherwise Known as the Sequel to the Berlin Trilogy (David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’)
You probably know by now, but the almost 70-year-old David Bowie came out with his 25th album: Blackstar (or ★): on his birthday last Friday (Feb 8th). And man is it a humdinger! Overall, he covers themes of mortality, morality, fame, feminism, capitalism, modernity, (possibly incest) time and being, (maybe castration) time and spatiality in direct relation to a lot of the aforementioned, and some more I’m sure. He also revisits an experimentalism with horns and synth that was heavily prevalent in his Berlin Trilogy days.
Needless to say, I’m sure he knocked more than a few people on their asses when they put this album on. I know it happened to me.
So now I’d like to go through the album and discuss what I think ole Davie is getting at with each song. Now of course, subjectivity, subjectivity, blah, blah, blah, art is very open to interpretation, yada, yada, yada, just one opinion, you get it.
One thing in particular that I would like to touch on, though, before diving in is how I read lyrics in general, but especially David Bowie lyrics. I have found this particularly helpful, and perhaps you will too. Approach Bowie’s lyrics much like you would an Impressionist painting. Move in too close, focusing on a specific portions leads you to experience cerebral dissonance. It is only once you are able to remove yourself and observe from afar that the entire image begins to take form. This will make more sense when considering the lyrics as they contemplate the obfuscation that is modernity, or more generally: life. It also may add the pleasurable effect of interweaving yourself with the “work of art.” As you begin to interpret the piece, it begins to take new shapes, which then affects you in a new way, and a lovely interplay takes off.
So without further ado.
“Blackstar” – The title track has a rather chimerical quality to it (like many Bowie songs). At first it purports to be a contemplation of mortality and religious iconography, not-so subtle hints of Scott Walker (no, not that one, this one–though sans the meat punching), and then an abstract doom over self-reflection, and introducing a vaguely Arabian phrygian scale, breathing faint whispers into our ears, acting like a trigger warning in this age of terrorism to conjure thoughts of the Middle East (Bowie has denied any allusions to ISIS), shapeshifting almost every other minute until falling back on what it originally started as: a contemplation of a death foretold. It’s atrabilious quality is matched only by its amorphous one. Then, halfway through (in lovely progressive style) he transcends once again from the sorrow, loss and brutality into a euphoric ascension of synth and vibes constantly reminding us what he is through a series of chants and negation: he’s a blackstar, he swears! But it leaves us to think: What is a blackstar, David? What can that mean? And as we press him for this existential meaning (by listening on) the repetition begins to present itself almost as a state of delusion, and by the time we start to doubt Bowie’s legitimacy our confusion is signaled by the ghoulish moans that fade in from the abyss and then we descend back into the darkness when the woodwind plays that familiar but unnamed phrygian scale again.
Bowie is knee-deep in a meditation on humanity’s impermanence, and the perturbation that unfolds from it. And similarly how in songs like “Warszawa”and “Neukoln” from Low and “Heroes” respectively, add to our sense of dread over the modern world (more precisely how they evoke imagery of the Cold War and nuclear hellfire), so too does “Blackstar” help us deal with our imaginations over impending calamity, unspeakable violence seemingly on the verge of takeoff at any point, hauling up these dreggy moments of human history and laying them bare on the foreground of our minds. And in addition to the fear of everything outside, we still have to deal with the uncomfortable fact that even on the inside, we’re a threat to our existence. Perhaps not the most exciting, fun topic to introduce right off the bat, but many Bowie album’s often have the opening track act as an informal thesis to the rest of the album. It’s no different here. And if certain people aren’t comfortable with that… well… then bring in the whores!
“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” – [Quick background: The song title is in reference to the 17th century Ford tragedy’s: “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore”. Since it’s where I went, and I have no intension of implying I knew this information from the outset, I defer to Wikipedia to provide the Synopsis of the play. The relation to the song is discussed below.]
Again in a Walkerian maneuver, Bowie begins the song with a man inhaling and clearing his throat, this seemingly useless fricative noise then becomes utilized, looped and incorporated into the song itself along with the drumbeat, synth, and growling horns. This is important, it goes on to form the idea of the song from the outset: something ugly and unwanted (a guttural sound that would usually be cut out during the mixing process) becomes subsumed into the very fabric of “‘Tis a Pity” and takes part of a new form.
Bowie then starts to sing. His voice strains, at times gargles and distorts completely. He exposes his fragility. He struggles with notes, utilizing his vocals much like the horn section in a jazz session, or as Fitzgerald or Holiday might have. Here we have Bowie taking his approach to jazz much like he does with many different types of music he encounters: rock, soul, funk, disco, Krautrock, etc. We get to see his (what I’ll call) “Plastik Jazz” on full display, and it will remain with us throughout the album. He sings as an old man remembering the sexual encounter with a whore during a war. The lines “That was patrol//This is the war” repeat throughout. So through this repetition of opposing demonstrative pronouns we are to gather a sense of difference. What happened on patrol was somehow different from the war. But it is a slight of hand, a misdirect. They are as uncoupled as entangled, and with this understanding of paradox we can see the war as both literal and figurative.
The patrol was this single encounter between man and whore (I imagine the dark-haired Temptress of Romantic legends, the one who breaks the will of men, the quintessence of lust, of sin, more appropriately the powerful passions that emerge in the face of fatality). It was where he was able to experience this sexual encounter. A sexual experience that obviously moved him enough to sing about it, now in the elder stage of his life in this haunting nostalgic ode. Both during and apart from the war, from the world, he had this moment [Note: it is unclear what the sex was: consensual or not, pleasurable or not, between strangers or not, etc. etc. All we are left to gather is that they were uncouth by societal standards.]. The lines “‘Tis a pity she was a whore” imply his remorse over the loss of that encounter, that he will not be able to experience such a moment again: such a pity.
It is his “fate,” his “curse,” he tells us to have these taboo desires that can only be satisfied through the conduit of the market, aided by this demimonde, while he is “out on patrol,” (again think of the cleared throat at the beginning of the song and now think of how “patrol” useless on its own enters another context, “patrolling” for the next whore who can satisfy his lust) but in the larger context of the “war” this interaction cannot be allowed by women who are not filles des joie. What Bowie points towards is a topic of conversation in feminist circles that is: in patriarchy, men have sex, women provide it.
Of course, the whore in Ford’s sordid play was Giovanni’s lover/sister: Annabella. So, if we want to make a bridge here, we can swap the idea of man sleeping with whore to man sleeping with sister, or sister-whore, and the incestuous aspect of the song takes it in a truly Gothic territory, which is fun. (Again, think of the spirant introduction and how it changed within the song. The same evolution is taking place here with the lament: “‘Tis a pity she was a whore.”) The taboo remains, of course, and the lessons of patrol and war can still be applied–though in a darker turn.
However one chooses to infer, we cannot enter this whirlwind of concupiscence unaffected. The swirling attack of the horns and thunderous pounding of drums environ us in this horror story of depravity, but it is what spurs this untowardness that is most intractably interesting.
Again think of the imagery of war as a backdrop, with the threat of death on the precipice, human beings double-down on their obsessions for life. Facing the inevitable with existential uncertainty breeds a certain mania, which seems to breed certain perversions such as sadomasochism in an act of desperation. It lends a helping hand to the patriarchal in the form of prostitution, and even devolves in the ugliest fashions: incest, rape, gelding or other sexual mutilations. These are all on display in “‘Tis a Pity” and you begin to realize the present and past-tense application of “to be” in the song’s hook is meant more chronological than progressive in difference; that the behavior of men towards women (and vice versa in other cases) “is” just as much as it “was” when dealing with one another in life and death.
Speaking of life and death…
“Lazarus” – Once more we see Bowie utilize religious imagery to focus on the themes of life and death. Though here with “Lazarus” the song appears to be contemplating a career as well as human temporality. The song is also featured in the new play by the same title, which Bowie co-wrote and produced. It is a sequel of sorts to the film he starred in: The Man Who Fell to Earth (which one of the film posters was also the cover art for Low).
In a unique way, the song stands as a form of paralleling between reality and fiction. “Lazarus” (both play and song) follows the character Thomas Jerome Newton as he has to deal with his reality now decades removed from the events in Man Who Fell. At the end of the film, Newton was a drunken wreck, who failed in his mission to save his world and family, instead living lavishly in a penthouse on Earth, left only with the ability to drink his riches away.
At the time Man was being filmed, Bowie shared similar doldrums with Newton. He had wealth and fame, was living in Los Angeles and being afforded with the pleasantries celebrity can provide a rock star: in David’s instance, cocaine. Lots and lots of cocaine. [There’s a particular story about Bowie that I find both tragic and fascinating. And that is while he was making Young Americans he was sustaining himself on a healthy diet of cocaine, peppers, and milk. And he kept his semen in jars out of fear witches might steal it from him. I don’t know if any of that is true, but hot ham and cheese is it a story!] Shortly after the release of the film, Bowie fled LA for the confines of France, and what would soon become known as the “Berlin Trilogy” as he started work on Low.
With this in mind, the song “Lazarus” becomes more complex than its face-value appearance of an alien, or ghost, angel, (Lazarus himself perhaps) who is looking down at the earth, reminiscing about his time spent down there, and he absentmindedly drops his cell phone down to the living world. A rather docile song about the interaction between earthlings and extraterrestrials, or living and dead, how the relationship between the known and unknown is an interwoven blur. The song instead, in the larger context (i.e. its relation to Bowie’s career and life) takes things one step further and looks to be about the rockstar (or ★) coming to terms with himself, both past and present.
When remembering that Newton experienced his life in multiple times, perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think Bowie (through Newton) is exposing a simultaneous conflation of past and present Bowie. Nearing death, he can look back at a time in his life where he seemed both alive yet dead, in this purgatorial state (much like his Newton) and he had to be risen by force (in this case physically removing himself from Los Angeles) to become alive again–much like our biblical Lazarus. That his savior was music, which pulled him from the Cerberus-like clutches of a lifeless materialism and hedonism.
“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” – In keeping with this idea of a failed materialism, and the crisis of Self that arises from it, Bowie introduces us to “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” halfway through the album. This is key positioning, in my mind. “Blackstar” introduces us to the thesis of the album: coping with our existence: with the admittance of our ephemerality. “‘Tis a Pity” looks at how this knowledge affects the way we behave sexually (with specific focus on the male perspective). And the previous song reflects on how spatiality and time are simultaneous in the human mind, allowing us to contemplate our worth. Hanging on to this notion of worth, Bowie explores how we attempt to satisfy ourselves in the maelstrom that is modernity.
By far, “Sue” is the most frenetic song on Blackstar. The guitar and drums really drive the song along while the horn section lays out some of the most splenetic melodies (verging on cacophony), at the same time Bowie tries his best baritone crooning à la Walker. The kinetic nature of the music mimics the automized modern world, propelling us so quickly forward, heading straight on towards oblivion at high speeds. Before we know it, in that mad dash for accumulation and debt-aversion, we’ve managed to meet our end so abruptly.
On the surface of Bowie’s sad projections, we learn of a man who kills his lover for she lied about being with another man, or having another family; or it is a story about a woman who is depressed and takes her life while pregnant, or dies of an illness, or some combination of the two, or other impressions, it depends on how certain lines (“I pushed you down beneath the weeds” and “Sue, Good-bye”, “You went with him” and “You went with that clown”, and a few others) are interpreted. Perhaps the “him/clown” is a man, perhaps the angel of death. He might even be the ghostly Lazarus we left in the previous song. Who knows?
More importantly, we see the failure of the man as he tries to construct an alcove from the chaotic world around him through the auspices of wealth. He gets a job. He buys a house. He takes Sue to the doctor. He takes full advantage of the capital he has accumulated in this modern world to help satisfy Sue and bring about some level of comfort and joy in the world, but despite these best efforts, despite the best intentions of affluence, Sue still ends up dead (or, however you see it, he loses Sue).
His best is as meretricious as buying a tombstone. There he pays for the lapidary false admission of purity (“‘Sue the Virgin’ on your grave”). Even in this sentimental act, capital can only help bring about the end of life, not fulfill it. In the most obvious sense: “you can’t take it with you.”
The title points to this grim fact, and is laid out in the song. Exchange value renders human life null and void as monetization of a human’s being is reduced to a commodity, where satisfaction can only be realized through market practice of buying and selling. When the political economy eliminates the humanity from a society, we should not be surprised by the results, after all: “In a season of crime, none need atone.” So when Sue dies, or leaves him, or whatever, it happens while he is at work (“Ride the train, I’m far from home”), and all he worked for appears to be as full of meaning as the materials that helped him realize that moment.
The story of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” appears to suggest the limitations of capital and its helpless quality when facing our common malaise of modernity.
“Girl Loves Me” – This next song is perhaps the most pop of the whole batch. It’s no surprise as Bowie liked (or hated) to throw at least one or two populist bites out there in his more exploratory Berlin Trilogies–“Sound and Vision” from Low, “‘Heroes'” and “The Secret Life of Arabia” from “Heroes” and “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ” from Lodger. Though the switch is that this song will probably not be played on the radio. Despite the hypnotic bass line and drumbeat that permeates down to your toes and gets them a-tappin’ more than any other song on this album, and despite the catchy (though NSFW) hook of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and chorus “Girl loves me” repeated over and over again, the song intentionally plays more satiric than sensational–at least for mainstream airwaves.
Alongside the jejune melody, are largely nonsensical lyrics that evoke the slang of A Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. Bowie uses Burgess’s “viddy” and “cheena” and more throughout the song. He does so to disguise the more coeval lyrics one might hear from many pop songs today: mainly trying to sleep with women, get money, and/or score drugs. [Fun experiment: when testing the level of objectification a woman is experiencing in a song, simply see if the “woman” could be replaced with any other inanimate object that the singer seems to be equally keen on. For example, a man can easily “sleep with” a woman, just as he can “get” with her, “score” her, or “grab” her. In these instances, the woman is about as equivalent to whatever object the man covets. She’s just another form of fetishism. Ain’t sexism a bitch?] It feels as if Bowie is puckishly exploring our contemporary notions of taste in this brave new world of entertainment. And ultimately it is just superficial nonsense, and about as useful as the market in terms of trying to assuage our coming doom. [There might also be a nod to the Millennial generation in here. Whether it is a praise or damnation, I’m unsure, but I will confess this is probably my favorite song on the album… :P]
The song also stands as a marker in the album. Here Bowie begins to ease us down from the headier, more macabre attention of the album into more tranquil, though still sullen tracks.
“Dollar Days” – In many respects, this acts as a coda to the previous songs in terms of lyrical meaning. Musically, it is Bowie’s atmospheric ballad for the album.
Bowie is looking back on his career as a musician, and the idea of making this album, trying to reunite that spark that made him want to be a musician in the first place, now with an added importance for the meaning it brings him so late in his life. He opens with an admittance of his wealth and fame, and with a bit of false modesty (or ernestness) he proclaims “It’s nothing to me//It’s nothing to see.” And if he does not achieve the goal he has set out (in this instance seeing the “English evergreens”–I think we can assume this is some form of paradise), it too will mean very little to him. He tries to convince himself by trying to convince us that he is rather irreverent about the whole thing, but the way he sings it, and the next lines suggest otherwise. He focuses on trying to write songs that audiences will enjoy “And fool them all again and again//I’m trying to” obsessed and frustrated with his own celebrity, and by the record label executives perhaps, or critics who claim he doesn’t care anymore, or is a hack. He vacillates between one moment being aloof, and then the next so impassioned. He is “trying” and “dying” to get to some ineffable something that he never tells us. We are only left to assume. But his message is genuine, the emotions all real. He is in the crepuscular phase of his life. The previous successes that he has reaped have little meaning for him at this stage, and he is now looking for some deeper connection with something and he knows it exists within him, and in some fashion is realized through his connection with the listener (“Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you”).
He wants to hear those words just as much as we do. Like him, we too are “trying” and “dying” for something.
And what is it? Well…
“I Can’t Give Everything Away” – The true final track on the album acts as a kind of afterword. Literally coming in off the tails of “Dollar Days” the synth ushers us in front of the Goblin King as he attempts one last time to hint at the cri de cœur of the album. Again the Berlin Trilogy is elicited as the harmonica from “A Career in a New Town” and the wailing guitar from “Red Sails” or numerous other Bowie tunes from that era book end the song. Is there something to gain from this allusion? “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he tells us.
We hear of returning pulses for prodigal sons, and “blackout hearts with flowered news” and wonder what he is pointing us to, which he simply replies: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”
Then in his most lucid stanza, he confesses to: “Seeing more and feeling less//Saying no, but meaning yes//This is all I ever meant//That’s the message that I sent” and the song shifts. Not melodically, it still remains the same, but in essence it changes from being about him to being about all of us. Bowie and the listener blend as we become the “I.” And when we return to the lines of prodigal sons and “skull designs upon my shoes” we see a portrait of people who only start to have a pulse when around extravagance, and how this materialism distorts our appreciation of our existence. Our privilege is standing in our own way of finding some kind of meaning. And the lines “I Can’t Give Everything Away” start to take a darker shade–one of bloated self-love and aggrandizement. The more we see, the less we start to feel, and our cynicism and desensitization allows our irony “saying no, but meaning yes” to run rampant adding to this effusive inauthenticity that becomes all we ever mean, and that is the message we send out to one another.
Me: Isn’t that right, David?
DB: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”
Me: Goddamn you!
But before we can get anything more out of him the instruments reach crescendo, and then fade, and next thing we know the album is finished. Leaving us to try and make sense of the remnants left behind.
So what to make of Blackstar? Well… right off the bat, this ain’t for everyone. Bowie fans who didn’t particularly care for his Berlin Trilogy, or some of his more experimental moments will probably not have any patience for this album. And that’s fine. I like Let’s Dance, too. It’s a great album. And for those who might be interested in getting into some Bowie, well, this is a great place to start if you like more progressive, art rock and lyrics that heavily focus on the above.
And the themes of the album are not foreign territory for the Thin White Duke. He’s visited and conquered these lands before. He is merely returning. He reconnects with previous albums from the seventies (specifically the Berlin epoch), as he also absorbs jazz and musicians like Scott Walker, reusing and altering all he knows to create something quite familiar, but brand new.
If all that sounds like something you want out of your David Bowie, then Blackstar is going to be right up your alley.
But with all that has been discussed, I cannot help but sit back and still ask: What is Blackstar? What does the word itself mean? What can be drawn from it?
It is a contradiction. An oxymoron. For it cannot be both the representation of the brightest form of light we have in the solar system, and the quintessence of its absence, and yet it is. And from this understanding we can both extrapolate its meaning outward to how the world behaves in blatant contradictions. And we can recall David’s words at the very beginning: “I’m a blackstar” and start to believe him now, and believe in ourselves. That we too are blackstars. That such significance can be drawn from such meaninglessness (such tenor from a baritone!), is nothing short of miraculous. And yet… we still find ourselves logically insensate because of the impossibility of the task at hand–the answer is the work, not the answer. So we go back at it, time and time again. We forget the lessons we learned in search for the answer, taking search from a different angle, thought up in a new way, ignored, criticized, revisited, accepted, forgotten all over again, and again, and again, and again.
We go through it. Bowie too. He visited these thoughts over time, specs of them run heavily through his earlier work. They are present in the Berlin Trilogy. Like us, he works on these. Album after album, over the decades he has collected a library of his own thought on the subjects. Adding and erasing notions, only to return to them later, different but brand new. The aporia is, in a sense, what leads to the palimpsest. A paradox that cannot be rectified. A pathos un-pacified.
In German, there is a rather profound compound word: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” and it basically means “to cope with the past.” More specifically, though, the word is utilized by Germans when talking about reconciling their identities with their past in direct relation to the horrible atrocities of World War II, mainly the terrors of the Holocaust.
I’m not foolish enough to make a cursory comparison here, and state Bowie’s experience is in any way, shape, or form close to the philosophical, moral soul-searching German people have to go through as part of their identity. But I do like this idea of trying to come to terms with one’s past as a way of informing your current state of being–in a more general sense it’s what some people call “history.” With respect to Blackstar, I think their is an existential “Todesbewältigung” going on, a “coping with death” that Bowie is taking the listener through with him. He is struggling with the ideas, reaching back through his lifetime to help him better understand that this has been a Gordian knot he has been wrestling with all this time. In his intellectual sparring match, his search for catharsis, he has brought us along for the ride and with any bit of luck we too have participated in this dissonant thinking about our own absurdity.
Contemplating your mortality never gets any easier, especially when you draw nearer to it with every breath. To consider all the fame and fortune the man has wrought himself, the listener should take comfort in the fact their beloved Bowie shares a similar melancholy. And there is some comfort in that knowledge, at least for me.
The struggle is real. But you aren’t alone. David Bowie is there, too.