At the time, I think I more or less assumed The Next Day was David Bowie's farewell album. I neither expected his imminent demise nor discounted the possibility of an And The Day After That coming out in a few years' time once he had a backlog of songs again, whether he lived to see them compiled or not – but with its downbeat sound, recycled cover art and the lack of fanfare with which Where Are We Now was released, it felt every inch an old man's retirement project, hobby doodles to keep his hand in rather than anything particularly fresh and new.
Don't get me wrong, a new Bowie album at that point was a great thing to have, and it was solid, with a bunch of tracks that from any other source would be hailed as instant classics... but it was the "interesting later work" of an artist whose paradigm-shattering years were behind him.
And there's nothing wrong with that: David Bowie had long since earned the right to do whatever he liked without having to blow anyone's mind ever again. How much can you expect from one man? After THAT career, a few extra good choons at the end were bonus enough.
So when I saw the video for Blackstar a couple of months ago, I sat up and paid fucking attention. The plaintive opening stanza that titles
this post hasn't left my mind since. Instantly I was a kid again, watching Ashes to Ashes on Top of the Pops
and thinking "What IS this?"
I've seen some artistic comebacks in my time, but this wasn't just Dave the Beloved Entertainer with a surprise new song – this was Bowie the Legendary Weird and Fascinating Visionary Genius, back at the top of his game, knocking it out of the park at escape velocity, firing ideas, riddles and symbols out machinegun style at a world that thought it had caught up with him years ago, cackling "Think again, sunbeam!".
The subsequent release of Lazarus and the full album drop last Friday confirmed that first impression. Haunting, challenging, blackly comic, roaming across genres and influences old and new (one song is in Nadsat, for crying out loud! How didn't that happen already?), it's slimmer and less cohesive than TND, but still arguably his best work in three decades. In retrospect, it seems obvious that cancer had given him a kick up the arse, or at least a final challenge worthy of of his talents: David Bowie versus Death Itself. But mortality and transformation have been such longstanding themes in his music that it wasn't obvious at all. It felt like a renaissance, not a valediction.
And now, abruptly, that's yer lot.
What a way to go. What an encore. That, ladies and gentlemen, is showmanship with a capital SHOWMANSHIP.
Always leave them wanting more.