Bowie’s often-mysterious forms of expression reliably inspire intense and overwrought analysis of his references and signifiers, of which there are plenty. And yes, there are plenty of religious (the “Blackstar” video’s bible-thumping Bowie and the song’s “You’re a flash in the pan / I’m the Great I Am” lyric) and occult references (the “button-eye man” and crucified scarecrows, not to mention
★’s heavy Aleister Crowley vibes, an influence that dates back to Bowie’s early albums). Late last year, McCaslin sent bloggers into a tizzy with his assertion that Bowie told him the lead single was Bowie’s response to the rise of ISIS.
Since he’s played (and discarded) so many memorable characters over his storied career, it’s easy to draw lines between otherwise innocuous words and images in Bowie’s current work and the storied signifiers of his past. Indeed, I found myself recalling the lyrics of “Station to Station” (“The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”) while watching “button-eye man” in the video for “Blackstar” — how could I not? Such are the perils of Bowie scholarship; everything feels significant.
Is the skeletal spaceman in the “Blackstar” video supposed to be Major Tom? Does it even matter? Bowie has famously evoked the spaceman signifier throughout his career, so the idea of an interplanetary traveller carries weight regardless of whether he’s evoking his first iconic character. And indeed, “Lazarus” is sung from the perspective of The Man Who Fell to Earth‘s Thomas Newton, another prominent spaceman of the Bowie canon. But this kind of analysis puts too much emphasis on how he might be mining his old work for ideas, trying to make some trite connection to a decades-old character or persona. If we know anything about Bowie, it’s that he possesses an infinitely curious mind and a ravenous appetite for newness; outside of the nuggets Tony Visconti occasionally bestows upon us, we can only guess wildly at what fresh source material he’s been ingesting to fuel his creative impulses.
The one thing that is abundantly clear on ★ is that death and mortality are at the forefront of Bowie’s mind. The tone of the entire album is unsettled, evoking an uncertainty born of years of exploration. Sonically, this is driven by the music’s syncopated percussion, the disjointed rhythms visually embodied by Bowie’s movements in the videos. Sure, his songs have always included themes and images of death, but here, it feels more personal, more intimate. Blessed with godlike genes, he’s aged gracefully, but on ★ he does not at all seem comfortable with his own impending mortality. For someone who’s led a life as exceptional as Bowie’s, “What’s next?” holds its own unique brand of terror. Does Bowie believe in the afterlife? And if so, what does it look like?
This new perspective is probably best explained by Renck, who also directed the “Blackstar” video. In an interview with Noisey, he takes a stab at elaborating on the perspective Bowie brought to their visual collaboration:
“…I do think that there’s reason to believe if you’re a prolific artist and going into your late 60s you’d at least start to think about mortality. In doing that you start thinking about your own relevance to history in a different way. When you’re young and you’re doing stuff, you’re making music, directing, making art, it’s all future directed. You want to change stuff onward. And when you get older—this applies to me—you think about the things you want to do and how it will be perceived by your children one day. The opposite of the frontal trajectory, there’s almost a biographical aspect to it, you know? So maybe you change your thinking.”
The intentional fallacy teaches us that not only is it impossible to really know what an author intends to express with their work, it’s actually undesirable. Regardless of Bowie’s intentions, ★ makes us feel something — something strong, something unsettling. Isn’t that enough? At 69 years old, David Bowie is still making music, and it’s as weird and affecting as he’s ever been. We should all be so lucky.