Blackstar’s music video was surreal and mesmerising, but most important was the music itself: it was immediately apparent that Bowie was back to his uncompromising and groundbreaking best. The song’s first movement sets the rather foreboding, claustrophobic-sounding scene, with glitchy beats, doleful saxophone passages, layers of synths and Bowie mournfully crooning enigmatic lyrics that evoked strange rituals. After four minutes, as the song appears on the verge of collapse, something beautiful happens – ethereal strings usher in a new movement, and a rejuvenated-sounding Bowie sings the now-iconic line “Something happened the day he died/Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside”.
Whether or not they were written with intentional prescience, as news of Bowie’s death was greeted with scenes of global public mourning the lyrics began to seem unavoidably prophetic – the first sign that Bowie had succeeded in turning his death into something “very precious” indeed.
Freed from his own influence
The rest of Blackstar didn’t disappoint, proving that, 25 studio albums and over five decades into his career, Bowie could still find new musical territory to conquer. While he’d flirted with jazz in the past, for Blackstar he sought out the most exciting sound in contemporary US music and – much like he had with Philly soul and funk on 1975’s Young Americans – embraced it.
Bowie first became aware of saxophonist Donny McCaslin in spring 2014, when working with composer Maria Schneider on an early version of Blackstar’s Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), which would appear on the 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed. On Schneider’s suggestion, Bowie went to see McCaslin’s quartet perform and was impressed enough not only to invite him to the recording session, but to continue the working relationship into Blackstar, with McCaslin becoming Bowie’s musical foil as the album developed.