Listen to this track by recently departed musical envelope pusher and singularly iconic artist David Bowie. It’s “Lazarus”, the second single as taken from his excellent and final album ★, aka Blackstar.
With Bowie, you never knew what you were going to get in the best possible sense, so uniquely off-of-the-path was his route to creating some of the most innovative music in the twentieth century. Even now, the sheer magnitude of his cultural impact seems as immeasurable as it is glorious. As such, new albums from an artist of his stature always felt like something to look forward to and to dread all at the same time, post-1980. We held him in such high regard that our expectations of his work hung suspended in the stratosphere attached to a palpable fear of falling from such a great height, emotionally speaking.
Bowie’s output was not perfect. And he did let us down in varying degrees over the years, sometimes just because he followed his muse to places that made it hard for us to follow him. But with ★, he won our hearts again with a record that is both brave and innovative as well as hearkening back to tropes and themes that he’d spent his career exploring; identity, the nature of fame, isolation, displacement, and mortality. He was back! Little did any of us know upon release of the new album just how far he would go to communicate these ideas to us again, particularly in this song which turned out to be the last ever David Bowie single during his extraordinary life.
This song “Lazarus” features in the off-broadway musical of the same name, featuring a lot of Bowie’s music both new and old, and revisiting the life of Thomas Jerome Newton, a character Bowie once played in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth. In that story, an alien being comes to earth to find a way to save his own people from ecological disaster, only to find himself trapped by his own wealth and excess. It was the part Bowie was born to play, having already drawn a parallel between worldwide fame and the extraterrestrial in much of his music by then. But, in this new context on ★, Newton’s story takes a backseat to Bowie’s own.
The video for the song viewed in retrospect has created all kinds of buzz about whether or not Bowie was saying goodbye to the world with this song and with the rest of the new record, having filmed it while diagnosed with cancer that he kept quiet about up until his death two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final statement as an artist. The imagery found therein is pretty hard to deny, with a bedridden and bound Bowie, rushing to complete a final work, and who by the end floats into a coffin-like cupboard.
Despite the death imagery, this song isn’t morbid. It’s called “Lazarus” after all! The song is less about death as a ferocious force that consumes life, and more about the freedom that Bowie himself had always sought as a creative force, even if the “scars that can’t be seen” are a by-product of his pursuit of it. Yet, that freedom is no less the goal at the end than when he started. In this song, life comes in many forms. And as with the biblical figure from whom this song takes its name, death isn’t always the barrier to life that we think it is.
Even after death, the people we love and admire live on. The memories that they helped to make in our own lives are free of the limited physical form (or in Bowie’s case the many physical forms!) they once took. In this, everyone is immortal, leaving lasting influences on the people we leave behind. In the end, we are the stories we’re able to tell about ourselves, and that get told about us after we’re gone. On our social feeds from January 10, a mere two days after the release of ★, so many of these kinds of stories poured out about David Bowie, with so many of them beginning with “when I was a young person going through a hard time because I felt weird, awkward, and out of place, I discovered David Bowie.” When we felt like an alien in our own worlds, in our own lives, Bowie went one better and got weirder and more alien than we could ever be; weirder, and cooler. He made being alien an OK thing to be, not something shameful that we needed to hide. In fact, he made it cool, and indirectly encouraged us to seek out other weird people to be alien with in the world together. “You’re not alone!” Bowie once cried in song.
Maybe Bowie was saying goodbye with “Lazarus”, cheekily and with a wink. But, I think the more important thing about this song, his last ever single during his lifetime, is that he was still writing for us, his weird little alien audience to which he’d helped to give voice for decades. That bluebird he sings about in “Lazarus” that he became in death and the freedom it brings wasn’t just his way to process the end of his life. He knew that freedom is for us, too, with our stories inextricably tied to his, and to each other’s.
Isn’t that just like him?
The album ★ aka Blackstar is on sale now. In the UK, royalties for the sales of the album and Bowie’s back catalogue will be donated to cancer research during the month of January.
For more on how David Bowie represented the voices of so many down the generations, take a read of this article from Intelligent Life Magazine.
Thanks to Sony Canada for sending along a download of the new album.