We lost David Bowie on January 10, 2016. It would have been less of a shock if we’d lost him years earlier. After a series of middling records and ambitious tours throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Bowie suffered a heart attack in Germany, then quietly receded from public life for most of the following decade. It was concerning, inconceivable that he of all people would voluntarily retire on such an abrupt down note. In 2012, The Flaming Lips even released a song called “Is David Bowie Dying?” and a lot of us thought shit, yeah he probably is.
Then in 2013, as suddenly as he’d vanished, Bowie returned with a new album. The Next Day was recorded at a deliberate pace and in absolute secrecy (NDAs for everyone involved), and it was his best LP in 30 years. From the first few seconds of the opening title track, there was an urgency we hadn’t heard in his music since the Berlin Trilogy. While he still wasn’t doing any live publicity, Bowie made a few videos and looked healthy. He’d simply taken us into an unexpected new phase of his career – more mysterious than past Bowie phases, but no less inspired.
The following year saw two new songs released as part of a career retrospective, and then in 2015, an epic ten-minute single called “Blackstar.” As exciting as it was to get any new Bowie material with The Next Day, “Blackstar” was even more significant. He was making radically new, vital music, years after many had counted him out. I was preemptively budgeting in my head, optimistic I’d finally get a chance to see him live.
The Blackstar LP was released on January 8, 2016. I listened immediately, repeatedly, and loved it. It’s a completely original, chaotic, jazz-inspired classic. Two days later, Bowie succumbed to liver cancer.
Coinciding with the album’s release was a video for the song “Lazarus,” featuring Bowie writhing in a hospital bed and dancing backward into a wardrobe before closing himself in. The man choreographed his own death, and none of us had a clue.
My favorite track on Blackstar is a re-recording of one of the two songs he’d released with his 2014 retrospective. Apparently inspired by a controversial 17th century play of the same name, “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is hyper, relentless, and progressively menacing. Bowie’s vocal performance, composed at first, grows to a strained yelp as he competes with bleating saxophones and discordant piano, all struggling to cling to the beat. It’s as wild and energized as Bowie’s ever sounded, the musical pulse of a manic genius defying his mortality until the last day.