THE BEGINNING

Alex Wisgard spent the weekend listening to Bowie’s latest album – it now takes on an extraordinary new dimension as his final farewell.

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“Something happened on the day he died…”

We will never again disagree on anything as we disagreed on Bowie. There were so many of him that finding someone who shared your obsession with any particular song always seemed special. Me, I’m still holding out for someone else who believes he never bettered ‘Teenage Wildlife’.

The sheer range of images, videos, quotes that have come with today’s tributes have been astonishing, not least because of how many of them focus on his latest (and now, final) album, ☆ ‘Blackstar’. I spent the weekend listening to it almost exclusively, with no portent or omen. Just letting another new Bowie record sink in – another new Bowie record no one would have expected even five years ago.

It’s heritage rock done right – there are references to past glories, memories, and times long gone. But, unlike 2013’s ‘The Next Day’, it doesn’t really sound like he’s revisiting himself like other long-running artists do – rewriting the old hits for a new century. ‘Blackstar’ is Bowie doing Bowie by being different, which is as comforting as playing ‘Changes’ for the twentieth time today.

‘Blackstar’ is economical – bursting with ideas over the course of its seven tracks, the whole thing clocking in at barely 40 minutes. I didn’t understand it at all on first listen. Or second listen. It was probably the fourth time around where it unfolded properly, and I began raving at my friends on Saturday night to check it out, as if it needed any more praise. “The title track!” I gushed. “It’s like ‘Station to Station’, but with a bit of Scott Walker, some Gregorian chanting, and a little drum’n’bass thrown in for good measure!” About anyone else’s music, that kind of description would be overreaching; I’d have thought someone was trying too hard. But it was Bowie. It always appeared that he didn’t have to try.

However, given Monday’s news, every second of that album now demands to be pored over. It’s made no more reassuring in the knowledge that this has been Bowie’s lot for the past 18 months – he was aware that this was his swansong. Just like everything else in his career, even his death was masterfully stage-managed.

“I know something’s very wrong…”

Of course, Bowie isn’t the first artist to make an album in the knowledge that time is running out. When the news broke, my mind started wandering to Warren Zevon. His final album, ‘The Wind’, was made in similar circumstances – a comeback no one saw coming, before a shock cancer diagnosis. Zevon, however, chose to go public, and let everyone know that his last album was to be his final word – he wanted it to be heard through that filter… and boy was it loaded.

Closing track ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’ is usually the one people return to, the awards-show-montage-soundtracker. But tracks like ‘Dirty Life and Times’ (“some days”, it opens, “I feel like my shadow’s casting me”) are more concerned with preserving Zevon’s irreverent wit in amber, rather than self-pity. Even its cover of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ is sung with all the gallows humour it can muster, Zevon’s final cry of “Open up, open up” punctuated by a mockingly slurred “…fer me!”

It’s not far removed from Rowland S. Howard’s ‘Pop Crimes’, which was recorded while Howard was undergoing treatment for liver cancer. In among some gnarly jokes (“I’m suspicious of my wife… I suspect she left long ago,” Howard drawls on the defiant ‘The Golden Age of Bloodshed’), and bleak hymnals like ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Shut Me Down’, lies a version of Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’. Talk Talk’s original is full of hope – a weirdly elemental take on eighties aspirationalism. Howard slows the track down to a crawl, sneering his way through the lyrics – “Baybeh, life’s what you make it! Can’t forsake it!” – like a man who isn’t entirely convinced. The ultimate proof? The original boasts a simple, two-word hook, which makes you punch the air with joy; Howard nihilistically omits these from his version. Those two words? “Everything’s alright.” Because, well… it clearly wasn’t.

Darker still is Johnny Cash’s ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ – the last album released in his lifetime. It opens with the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and somehow gets blacker from there. Much like the ‘Lazarus’ video – which begins with Bowie on his deathbed and ends in a coffin – Cash’s video for ‘Hurt’, which we’ve all seen and cried over many times by now, literally takes place in The Museum Of Cash. Cash and his late wife June are poring over dusty artefacts from their shared past, June looking on caringly while Cash’s trembling hands finger books and instruments, trying to divine memories from them.

“Look up here, I’m in heaven…”

Bowie didn’t give us a warning; given his recent love of surprises, that’s not exactly unexpected. But listening back, maybe ‘Blackstar’ did. It’s not an entirely sad listen, there’s jokes aplenty to be found: the entire mid-section of the title track – “I’m a flash in the pan! I’m the big I am!” – or the cheeky, Nadsat/Polari hybrid on the confounding ‘Girl Loves Me’. Even his final single ‘Lazarus’ flits between profound observations about the afterlife, and the image of Bowie wandering New York City, “looking for your ass” before dropping his mobile phone in the loo.

It’s a helpful way to break up some genuinely tragic moments, though. “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to,” he sings on the elegiac ‘Dollar Days’, “It’s nothing to me.” Is Bowie the emigre getting in one final twist of the knife to his home country, or simply using anger to mask the fact he’ll never go home again?

I’m not even going to try and unpack the rest of the song, but when Bowie reassures the titular character of “Sue (Or a Season in Crime)”… hearing that on Monday morning… a punch in the stomach.

“This is all I ever meant, that’s the message that I sent…”

Listening to ‘Blackstar’ so much has made me realise how many Bowie albums I’ve still not heard. I’m planning to make a b-line for ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ once the news has settled, though I think I’ll still give ‘Never Let Me Down’ and ‘Tin Machine 2’ a wide berth. But that’s the joy of an artist like Bowie – there’s always something undiscovered, even in the records you’ve known and loved your entire life. I just assumed, as many seemingly did, that we’d have a few more to enjoy together.

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