The concerns of Blackstar are numerous and often inscrutable, with Bowie’s death dominating the discourse surrounding its interpretation to a frankly suffocating degree. The day after the album’s release, the media was awash with a myriad conflicting reactions, from delight to bafflement, fascination to dismissiveness. The day after that, analysing Blackstar on its own merits became effectively impossible – its status as epitaph consumed it. Now, reading Blackstar as an album about death is as tedious as it is accurate. Nobody will ever interpret “Sue, the X-ray’s fine” as anything but a reference to Bowie’s brief cancer remission. He died on a Monday, so “Where the fuck did Monday go?” is now just a spooky coincidence, a Trivial Pursuit answer. The list goes on. Yes, it’s about death. However, in the outpouring of collective grief, certain key components of that reading were overlooked.
The basic symbolism of the black star is difficult – even on a superficial level, it offers a storm of contradictions and possibilities. Many dismiss attempts to interpret Bowie as a waste of energy, citing his evident obfuscationism and sometimes random songwriting practises, but if we can’t test our imaginations here, where can we? There’s something admirable, even glorious, about the impenetrable, but there’s no point if you don’t try. The mind leaps first to the black hole, which is fitting – what else could lurk at the heart of such a simplistic symbol, such a singular frontispiece, but a literal singularity?
“Starman”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Lady Stardust”. “The Prettiest Star”, “Shining Star”, “New Killer Star”, Superstar. “The Stars Are Out Tonight”. “Star”. Evidently there’s something of a trend here, and with good reason – the word “star” itself represents the point of intersection between Bowie’s childlike fascination with the cosmos and his material interest in the experience of celebrity. Many of his songs hinge on that central pun. One way or another, Bowie always sang of stars, and however much we may try not to think about it, we all know what stars orbit. This album is the fate of Bowie’s entire galaxy; the black hole into which his cosmic opus spirals and collapses.
However, the video challenges – or at least complicates – the “black hole” reading. Its cosmic visual focus is rather a solar eclipse, hanging lazily in the sky as the alien girl crosses her strange landscape to acquire the skull of Major Tom. (She’s unsurprised, implying this is ritual rather than happenstance. The skull is encrusted with jewels, suggesting either previous worship or that the astronaut underwent some very peculiar biological changes on the trip here from Earth. The nature of his journeys, and how long Major Tom survived, is a matter of conjecture. Flash Gordon pulp adventure and David Bowman existential transfiguration seem equally appropriate – Bowie did love 2001, for all the cheese of his initial response to it.) The eclipse is static, unmoving, so perhaps we’re to assume that this is a dying world whose moon has ceased to orbit, a cosmic dead end. Eclipses are another rich symbolic mine (or mine field); the union of opposites, the eaten sun. Perhaps Bowie really has just contrived another shield to conceal his meaning. But what if there’s a way to bridge these symbols?
Consider the alien world. Its cultist inhabitants conduct strange, macabre rituals. They commit human sacrifices, or something like. They twitch and spasm in silence, their movements achieving an energy and a strangeness seldom to be found in videos for a twenty-seventh studio album. Not to suggest a value judgement against “primitive” peoples, but these don’t seem to be a scientifically-minded bunch – the milieu here suggests a race with occult or supernatural proclivities and interests, one concerned with symbology rather than mundane reality. When these people look to their sky, do they perceive their planet’s natural satellite obscuring the nearest stellar body? No, they see a burning light emanating from pitch darkness. They see a black star.
This is my proposal: Blackstar is not just about Bowie’s celebrity. It’s about the gulf between our perception and his reality, between the god and the man. The alien cultists fetishise Major Tom’s skull, elevating the lost astronaut who fell from their sky to godhood. For his final trick, Bowie cleanly inverts his theme of extraterrestrials descending to Earth to rock the minds of its inhabitants, and in doing so draws our attention back to that original concept, illuminating its contours like a flash of lightning. Inversion is central to the album on the most basic level. “We were born upside-down / Born the wrong way round.” It’s right there in the oxymoronic title.
“At the centre of it all / At the centre of it all / Your eyes.” That is to say that our perception, our understanding, is what really matters. Not David Robert Jones the man, but David Bowie the idea, the singularity refracted through a kaleidoscope of human culture and influence and experience, until all we can see is the corona of a sun collapsing behind a vast obfuscating miasma of myths and misconceptions and idolatry.
“Fuck it, I’m just going to put all of the things that I enjoy in,” decided Terry Gilliam as he sat down to write The Defective Detective. Gilliam identified a tendency for artists to create compilation-style works late in their careers, pointing to Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and Ingmar Berman’s Fanny and Alexander as similar examples. It’s a respectable move, and when planning the work which would necessarily serve as summary and epilogue of his life and career, Bowie could reasonably have done this. Instead, he did exactly the opposite. It’s likely the sheer scope of the task, the impossibility of unifying a tale of so many discrete and vivid chapters into a cohesive statement, which led him to the obfuscation of the singularity. He could have assembled a montage of old techniques – charted the evolution from “The Laughing Gnome” to “Space Oddity”, from Ziggy Stardust to Reality, but this kind of shallow recapitulation would have betrayed the spirit of innovation and continuous discardment that animated the works themselves. No, he had to write a rock album and get a bunch of jazz musicians to play it. Blackstar is not a summation – it’s a step towards a destination we can never see, and it’s all the more representative of Bowie for it. (The five demos he recorded for his post-Blackstar album before dying will provide a fascinating new lens through which to consider Blackstar itself, should they ever see the light of day.)
The videos for both singles, “Blackstar” and “Lazarus”, centre on specific incarnations of Bowie; specific figures in his personal mythology. “Blackstar” is implicitly the culmination of Major Tom’s odyssey, the confirmation of his death in the depths of space and the subsequent veneration of his skull by an extraterrestrial cult. (As the song transitions from its first to second act, the rest of Major Tom’s bones drift into the eclipse, and his saga comes to its divided, ambivalent end. It’s completely unclear how the bones were removed from the space suit and flung neatly back into void, but this only serves to emphasise how useless mundane logic is in this place.) “Lazarus”, on the other hand, focuses on the later life of Thomas Jerome Newton, the eponymous Man Who Fell to Earth, who originated in a book by Walter Tevis. Michael C Hall stood in for the unwell Bowie in the latter’s musical sequel, also titled Lazarus. As Newton, Hall’s performance is overtly and necessarily a self-effacing imitation, a vessel for the audience’s memories of Bowie. The “Lazarus” video starring Bowie is essentially part of a Lazarus film that will never be made, and watching it is like viewing a scene from The Five Doctors with William Hartnell in place of Richard Hurndall – it’s a glimpse at things as they should be, not as they are. The extravagance and colourful science fiction of “Blackstar” are stripped away, and we’re essentially shown Bowie on his deathbed, frail and gaunt. This gigantic, entirely deliberate anticlimax is aided by an aspect ratio that’s taller than it is wide – it’s like Bowie is trapped in one of those sterile little tiles that cover his wall, a far cry from the ultra-cinematic letterboxing of “Blackstar”. At other times, Newton sits at a desk, apparently struggling with writer’s block; the skull of Major Tom serves as both muse and memento mori. His final retreat into the hospital room’s wardrobe puts me in mind of Robert Shearman’s Deadline, and its own metafictional meditation on loss and death and an artist’s regrets. One wonders what Tevis would have made of all this – how many obscure literary characters have been co-opted by musicians for decades-spanning, career-defining transmedia projects?
Revisited after “Blackstar”, “Space Oddity” is profoundly altered – previously a stand-alone kitsch classic (with “Ashes to Ashes” and “Hallo Spaceboy” as ambiguous follow-ups), it’s now the beginning of a saga with a clearly defined ending, the first chapter in a science fiction epic whose escalation in production values makes the entirety of Doctor Who look consistent by comparison. Reaching the heavens, Major Tom experiences some kind of cosmic revelation, a certainty which inspires him to steer his craft off-course into the unknowable. Unable to grasp what’s happening, Ground Control spirals into panic and confusion. “The stars look very different today”, but no-one on Earth shares in Major Tom’s new perception – like the cultists in “Blackstar”, they may gaze up at the sublime but they can never understand it. (In what may be Bowie’s first direct personification of celestial bodies, the mind-altering stars Major Tom witnesses are represented by two ethereal women encountered in the void.)
It’s quite curious that Bowie’s final artistic creation should revolve around these two specific characters, treating them as equal but opposite axes, particularly as Bowie makes to effort to clarify the relationship between these aspects of himself. One detail that emerges when you consider this, and it’s rather obvious in retrospect, is that Major Tom and Thomas Jerome Newton have the same first name. Granted, Newton was created by Tevis for a 1963 novel, but that’s no problem for our postmodern magpie. Is there room for the possibility that these are two names for an individual being? It goes without saying that, in some sense, all of Bowie’s incarnations represent aspects of his own identity, and can therefore be regarded as a multifarious whole. This is the central joke of Jazzin’ for Blue Jean. However, the idea of a literal connection between any of these characters is significantly murkier and discussed nowhere near as often. Major Thomas Jerome Newton… Major Tom Jerome Newton… The obvious problem here is that Major Tom is a human astronaut whereas Newton is an alien being, so any literal reconciliation would involve a radical change to the background and nature of one character or the other… which is fun in its own way. On the other hand, Newton is welded inextricably to the Thin White Duke by virtue of Bowie’s choice of cover artwork for Station to Station and Low, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that the alien and the decadent, contemptuous aristocrat are the same entity – hell, Lazarus has Newton singing, and the video even has Bowie clad in the striped black and silver he wore for the Station to Station photo shoot. It’s only when you try to make Major Tom the Thin White Duke as well that the entire Jenga tower comes tumbling down.
Still, one wonders what marvellous nightmares Bowie and director Johan Renck might have dreamt up for the album’s other songs. Would the video for “Girl Loves Me” have featured a warped, elderly reprisal of Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth? Could “Dollar Days” have seen the return of the Thin White Duke (for real this time)? Would Renck have channelled David Lynch for a Twin Peaks pastiche revealing the fate of Philip Jeffries? Might “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” have continued the story or the little boy who, one lonely Christmas, built a real snowman?
The video for “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is a pleasant trifle, but the absence of Bowie is palpable. Not that there were plans for a proper video to be filmed – if he’d wanted to, Bowie could easily have made one with Renck at the same time as “Blackstar” and “Lazarus”. Instead the animation, essentially an abstract lyrics video, serves as a full stop, one last posthumous shove to give the final track of the final album its moment in the spotlight. Its only really intriguing aspect is the addition of the infinity sign to Blackstar’s constellation of symbols – not that the infinite wasn’t already part of the dialogue, but there’s something heartening about its manifestation alongside those final lines, that explanation offered from the deathbed. “Saying more and feeling yes, saying no but meaning yes. This is all I ever meant, that’s the message that I sent.” All the cards are on the table… even if they are all weird Tarot cards that nobody can understand.
Bowie originally envisioned “Blackstar” as two songs, and it’s not difficult to see the seams. Structured like a medley, the track has three distinct acts, each around three minutes long, linked with ethereal bridges: first the slow, haunted opening, then the passionate, fervent middle section, and finally a return to the slow and contemplative for the conclusion. The middle section is the song’s climax, the most conventionally enjoyable part to listen to – I have heard more than one person I otherwise respect refer to it as “the good part” – but it’s an insertion, a different song Bowie grafted in. This contrast is what makes the song what it is; to call any section “the good part” diminishes “Blackstar”, and fails to recognise that its ability to accommodate such vastness within itself is the source of much of its power. (I don’t have the music-theory terminology to discuss this in detail, but it so happens that most of my favourite songs share this symphonic structure – “Don’t Look Down” by The Divine Comedy, “Life Is a Pigsty” by Morrissey, and “Five Years” by Bowie himself all play like composites, with one constituent song flowing into another.)
When an album shares its name with a track, that track can generally be viewed as the heart of that album; the key to its larger meaning. In the case of Blackstar, that doesn’t immediately help, because the title track is one of the most lyrically obtuse. However, the blackstar concept is integrated into the track’s lyrics in a tellingly unique way. The middle section opens, “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre, then stepped aside / Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”. That declarative refrain echoes and repeats for the remainder of the song; high-pitched and strangled, it sounds starkly different from its surroundings, to the degree that it’s something of a shock on first listen and remains spine-tingling long after. This album cannot be fully unlocked – the swift denials issued when Donny McCaslin let slip that Bowie had told him about its ISIS allusions hint at depths so deeply buried, so far removed from the surface of the text, that we know we can never completely understand. But if there’s a way in, a chink in the armour of the event horizon, it must be here.
According to Renck, Bowie plays three characters in the “Blackstar” video: the trickster, the priest, and Button Eyes. The dramatic middle section is performed by the trickster, who stands alone in a steep-roofed room. Whether it reminds us more of the attic in The Snowman or the barn in “Listen”, there’s an echo of childhood here; the contemplation of a lost past. (Actually, let’s go for broke: maybe the person whose death the trickster is singing about is the snowman, and that’s what we’re watching a stealth sequel to. Spirit rose a metre, then stepped aside; we’re walking in the air.) The trickster sings first with overwrought passion, reciting the story of death and succession, his hands clasped as if in prayer. Suddenly he reveals his true nature, swerving from sweet reverie into glamorous, Faustian temptation, mugging at the camera like a man deranged: “I can’t answer why, just go with me…” This schizophrenic nature calls to mind the cold fire of the Thin White Duke, but as we see in the “Lazarus” video, the Duke is also frail old Button Eyes. Too many Bowies are invoked here, the barriers between their identities growing hazy, personas collapsing into a single point under the gravity of the onrushing end. “You’re a flash in the pan / I’m the great I Am.”
The video’s three dancers have different relationships with Bowie’s characters. They ignore Button Eyes, dancing in the barn/attic while he lurks outside. However, they seem entranced by the priest, looking on as he flaunts his blackstar bible before a dreamily cheap, Truman Show-style painted sky. (Is this the book written by Newton in “Lazarus”? Or is all this his fever-dream?) Of the three, the woman seems out-of-place – she looks a bit like Nicola Murray out of The Thick of It – but she’s also the only person besides Bowie to appear in the videos for both “Blackstar” and “Lazarus”, where she lurks under his deathbed like a psychopomp. (Perhaps the wardrobe leads, Narnia-like, to the Villa of Ormen.)
The identities of the man who died and his blackstar replacement are unspecified, with the trickster and his accompanying off-screen vocalist telling the story as if it happened to someone else, a long long time ago. All this leaves the act of succession itself largely abstract. Indeed, it’s endlessly applicable, as Bowie’s career is nothing if not a continuous series of successions, each persona supplanting another, gradually accumulating to form a one-man pantheon that was incipient as early as the day he abandoned his birth name. However, it’s reasonable to infer that the rest of the song’s middle section is about this event. Hell, this is the climactic core of the title track on Bowie’s goodbye album, and the only part that mentions the eponymous concept – this three-minute section probably contains the key to his entire oeuvre, never mind the album. Now, I’m obviously not about to find it – no more than I’m likely to cross an event horizon and return to tell tales of what I’ve seen – but I do feel obliged to sort of give it a go.
The voice proceeds to a litany of declarations, announcing that he is both a “blackstar” and a “starstar”, but not a “gangstar”, a “filmstar”, a “popstar”, a “marvelstar”, a “flamstar”, a “whitestar”, a “pornstar”, or a “wandering star”. (All of these spellings are taken directly from the lyrics in the album booklet, however unintuitive they may be.) This shopping-list of increasingly incoherent types of star is like one final act of absurd self-parody, reflecting the absurd number of configurations and contexts in which the word “star” has appeared across Bowie’s work. The pun on “gangster” might be the song’s sole concession to The Last Panthers, the crime drama to which it is nominally the theme music, while the elision of the spaces in the other declarations serve to collapse them, make them more singular and monumental in their meanings. These are harder to get a hold on, but seem to cohere into a general rejection of popular culture and mass media, of the circus of celebrity, in favour of introspection and the oblique. He singles out and embraces “starstar”, though, perhaps because its tautology elevates him past the mundanity of all lesser varieties of stardom. Aleister Crowley, one of the sources Bowie and Renck discussed between themselves, wrote in his apocalyptic Book of the Law that “Every man and every woman is a star.” In this new world, what else is left but negation?
At the dead centre of the video is an understated moment where Bowie encounters the alien girl who found his skull. Remarkably, the encounter is filmed entirely in extreme close-up. Bathed in yellow light, Bowie makes bewildered eye contact with the girl, who winks coolly, reassuringly. “At the centre of it all / Your eyes”. Is this the crux of it?
The solitary candle is one of the video’s more difficult images. All we’re told about it is that it stands in the villa, yet it’s filmed with the clarity of an establishing shot (in a video that really has none). How the various locations relate to each other is so unclear that it sometimes seems the candle holds a world of its own. Nowhere is this suggested as strongly as the aforementioned eye-contact scene, which concludes with a cut to a shot zooming rapidly out of the candle’s flame. It’s enough to put one in mind of the radiator in David Lynch’s Eraserhead, also the site of a cryptic encounter with an otherworldly lady. (On the subject of Lynch, grey spiky-haired Bowie is the very image of him.)
Another of the video’s most puzzling images is its grotesque parody of Calvary, the trio of scarecrow-men hanging from crosses in a field, as if being crucified. They writhe and gyrate, then fall prey to a shambling, shoggoth-like swamp monster conjured by the cultists with Major Tom’s skull. (Curiously, everything in this sequence seems to glimmer with edges of red and blue – like the scene where the Doctor rescues Clara in “Hell Bent”, this seems to be a conscious decision to invoke anagylph 3D, an outdated mode of media consumption which has evolved into a unique retro aesthetic in the detached mode of vaporwave.) Renck tells us that this tableau was not intended as a messianic reference, but it so blatantly is one that it seems he and Bowie are indulging in some Hideaki Anno-style pilfering of Christian imagery, drawing on the crucifixion for its raw iconic power and only catching its meaning as a side-effect. The invocation of Golgotha threatens to link “Spirit rose a metre, then stepped aside” (heard as we’re fully introduced to the scarecrows) to Christ’s act of “giving up the ghost”. But straightforward understandability would neuter this image, rob it of its deathly transcendence. Crypticism and occlusion grant Blackstar its fire.
The scarecrows are introduced late, but alluded to early: this is evidently “the day of execution”, when “only women kneel and smile”; however, it’s not so clear who’s being executed. The scarecrows are the only ones being attacked physically (or so it seems – the camera cuts away as the monster attacks, and a brief final shot shows them unassailed). However, Button Eyes is clearly connected to the scarecrows – he shares their dress sense, of course, but the creature’s attack on them is also rapidly intercut with shots of Button Eyes doubling over in pain, as if he’s psychically linked to them. Considering its inscrutability, the sequence of events is bizarrely easy to follow.
The album’s front cover, featuring a simple black star against a white background, is almost comically simple. The spiky shapes positioned below hint at some additional cryptic meaning, but actually just spell “BOWIE” in an impenetrable font created by artist Jonathan Barnbrook. Admittedly, following up The Next Day’s defacement of “Heroes” was one hell of a task, especially considering that Barnbrook was competing with his own work. What’s the next step after blunt détournement? Apparently just simplicity.
But Blackstar isn’t any one symbol or image. Despite the cover’s singular nature, despite the decision to essentially seize a pre-existing Unicode character and use it as the heart of a song and album (and career!), Blackstar still undermines the idea that a collection of music should correspond to a single visual. Beneath the minimalistic front cover, the album booklet is filled with baroque imagery and astrological charts. A star field lies on the inside cover – Bowie’s galaxy, after death, frozen forever in its eclectic singularity.
A few weeks before the “Blackstar” video appeared online, a video game series that owes a great debt to Bowie’s work drew to a close with the release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the story of the warlord Punished “Venom” Snake, formerly known as Big Boss. In their respective media, Bowie and designer Hideo Kojima occupy a similar nexus point between critical acclaim, commercial success, and gleeful postmodernism, with Kojima cementing the parallel by littering his games with copious Bowie references. Much like Kojima’s final Metal Gear game, Bowie’s final creation is bipartite; The Phantom Pain was preceded by a prologue, Ground Zeroes, just as Blackstar was preceded by the related musical Lazarus. (The day he died, it instantly became clear why Bowie had shot down Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s idea for a musical based on his work – he wanted to control his own exeunt, and authoring another’s take on him in his final years would have thrown it off balance.) Just like Blackstar and Lazarus, the two games comprising MGSV focus on different but overlapping characters played by the same actor.
MGSV is an impressive piece of paratextual storytelling, outright eschewing the idea that a game’s music actually needs to be part of the game in a literal sense. Its trailers were accompanied by a series of pre-existing, thematically apt songs – “Not Your Kind of People” by Garbage, “Elegia” by New Order, and “Nuclear” by Mike Oldfield – and looking back, you’d swear they were part of the game itself, memory blurring the lines between the work and those drawn into its semantic orbit. This is not entirely unlike Blackstar’s manipulation of visual artwork in our mental landscapes: just as our recollections of Snake’s melodrama are accompanied by a co-opting of New Order’s epic, wordless meditation on the death of Ian Curtis, so too are are memories of Blackstar’s aural universe haunted by images of pulsing grids and Pioneer plaques. These are stories without borders.
One the song which does appear in-game, permitted by the 1984 setting, is “The Man Who Sold the World”. One of Bowie’s more nebulous pieces, it describes a dreamlike encounter between a man and his sinister, half-forgotten doppelganger, who seems to have committed some unspeakable bargain. At the game’s conclusion, Snake receives a cassette tape signed “From the man who sold the world”. He is told that he himself is an impostor, a nameless soldier brainwashed and surgically altered to become Big Boss’s mental and physical doppelganger. “I cheated death thanks to you,” says his former friend and mentor, “and thanks to you I’ve left my mark. You have too: you’ve written your own history. I’m Big Boss, and you are too. No, he’s the two of us together. Where we are today, we built it. This story, this legend, it’s ours. We can change the world, and with it, the future. I am you and you are me. Carry that with you wherever you go. Thank you, my friend. From here on out, you’re Big Boss.” For all its knowing absurdity, this message could just as easily apply to Bowie’s resignation from our earthly plane, to the immortality he achieved through the influence of his artistic legacy. If we lived in a more melodramatic world, Michael C Hall, our own Punished “Venom” Bowie, might have found a similar tape in his dressing room. It’s an idea that runs through the core of Bowie’s work – right back to the unmade Ziggy Stardust musical, in which he dreamt he would originate the title role on-stage before passing it on to an endless succession of stars, and so achieve a kind of immortality.
The decision to include Midge Ure’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” rather than Bowie’s original initially seems puzzling, but begins to make sense once we learn Snake’s identity; he’s not quite the real deal either. And Ure himself is no stranger to assumed identities, with “A Song for Europe” revealing that he himself is simply a mask for Father Benny Cake. (But what does this imply about Father Brian Eno, you ask? Who can say. Having reached the deepest lore, we must turn back.)
The man is rejected, discarded as unimportant, and the legend – the god – is revealed as transcendent, a memetic entity that can outlive any mundane body, an idea that cannot be killed by anything so mundane as bullets (or liver cancer). Snake’s true face and name are our own, the selections we made at the beginning of the game without realising their true importance. He punches his mirror, splintering it to reflect his own fractured identity before turning and walking into the literal mists of time, an embodiment of the death of the author.
The central image here, interestingly, seems to have been taken from the ending of David Lych’s Twin Peaks. The final episode is set largely in the Black Lodge, a dreamworld where inscrutable alien entities cavort and dance with the spirits of the town’s dead, occasionally offering cryptic prophesies – not a million miles away from the “Blackstar” video, really. After Dale Cooper seemingly escapes, his first action is to shatter his bathroom mirror, its fractured reflection revealing that he’s not our hero but a demonic doppelganger. A year after this finale, Bowie appeared in the Twin Peaks prequel film as Philip Jeffries, an FBI agent who has come unstuck in time. (Incidentally, co-stars include Snake himself, Kiefer Sutherland. I almost feel like these tangential connections and coincidences triangulate something; like they point towards some black specificity at the heart of this tangle in ideaspace. But what?) Bowie agreed to reprise the role for a cameo in the long-awaited 2017 revival, but his death took this from us, along with his vaunted appearance as Count Robert Lecter in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal; a couple of stars in our constellation flicker and turn dark. (James Gunn also offered him a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, but he was never a marvelstar.)
Mirrors fascinated Bowie. When assembling the accompanying graphics for 2013’s Nothing Has Changed compilation, Barnbrook selected a series of photographs where Bowie’s incarnations consider their own reflections. (Even Bowie’s shallow recapitulations are somehow new and interesting!) Noting a parallel to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Barnbrook points out how these images touch on themes of immortality, performativity, impermanence, and legacy, but declines to settle on any particular statement. How could he? The mirror is a symbol every bit as dense as the black hole, every bit as unfathomable. The ageing, complete, palimpsestuous Bowie can only ever be encapsulated by a symbol that equally evades comprehension. Perhaps his interest in eyes and perception had some link to the teenage fistfight which imparted his false heterochromia. Maybe his fixation on doppelgangers and mirror images involved his schizophrenic older half-brother, and the gap his loss left in Bowie’s life. That was for him, and him alone, to know. Maybe part of the point of Blackstar is that we never can.
I said Blackstar was a step towards a destination we’ll never see, but that’s not really right. It’ll still have its consequences, its follow-ups, its sequels, its refractions and echoes – it’s just that this time, they won’t be David Bowie albums. This time, it’s on us lot.
Edit: In retrospect, this post is easily the least coherent thing I’ve ever written. May it stand as a monument.