LONDON, United Kingdom — David Bowie released his new album Blackstar on Friday, his 69th birthday. Unlike his last album The Next Day, which appeared out of the blue two years ago, we knew the release date for this one. What we didn’t know was how good it would be, less the work of a man on the brink of his eighth decade than an album that startled, provoked, and enthralled as dazzlingly as any of his past masterpieces. Bowie made an art of the unexpected, as he did with almost everything about his work and his life, and as he has done now with his death. Knowing now what he knew, it’s tempting to listen to Blackstar as the obituary he wrote for himself. And, given the opportunity for a last bit of legacy management, following on the heels of a museum retrospective which has been touring the world — an exhibition which beautifully put the seal on his career up to that point — Bowie rose brilliantly to the occasion.
What’s surprising in the light of what we’ve been told was an 18-month battle with cancer is that there is none of the rage you might expect from a man who was still so creatively vital. Nor is there fear, or resignation. Yes, there is a track called Lazarus (and who, under sentence of death, would not want the chance to rise again?) but, more to the point, there is total engagement with his craft, and a palpable sense of excitement at the sounds he is making with musicians who were new to him. He whoops with glee on the album, though maybe, in hindsight, it's defiance. Still, you read the lyrics now with new eyes, and you hear his acknowledgement of things that may no longer come to pass: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see,” (Dollar Days). “Saying more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes, this is all I ever meant, that’s the message that I sent,” (I Can’t Give Everything Away).
On a personal note, I can scarcely put into words the impact Bowie had on me over the past near-five decades. He once described himself as a “medium,” a bridge between his audience and the arcana that absorbed him. I dutifully read, watched and listened to everyone and everything he endorsed, and, in the process, discovered writers, musicians and artists I might otherwise never have known about. Bowie had that effect on more people than you can ever imagine, which means that his influence is ultimately incalculable, although if you look at the effect he had on fashion designers, for instance, you can hazard a guess at its extent. As an artist whose currency was constant, convincing change, he couldn’t fail to inspire others to take creative risks. And lately, Bowie has also been able to remind us of the importance of privacy and the power of surprise in an age where there no longer seems to be much of either. He lived his life — and died his death — exactly as he wanted to, on his own terms.
“I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again,” he sings on Dollar Days. But Bowie did a pretty good job up to this point. Being fooled never felt so inspiring. So why don't you fool us one more time, David? Come back, like Lazarus.