David Bowie, a superhuman cultural icon and musical innovator, died on Sunday (Jan. 10). Two days before that, on his 69th birthday, he released his final studio album (and 27th overall), Blackstar, which features a song called “Lazarus,” an allusion to the New Testament figure whom Jesus raises from the dead after four days.
The “Lazarus” music video, which premiered on Jan. 8, opens with a bedridden, blindfolded Bowie singing, “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Before we go any further, it’s important to recognize the temptation to read these words literally, written from the hand of a dying Bowie as he marched slowly to his quiet demise from cancer. But as an artist, we owe him the possibility that he was using metaphor. “Lazarus” was also included in an off-Broadway show of the same name.
It’s easy to view the song and its video as documents that hold some “clues” to Bowie’s knowledge of his exit, and some have. Maxim said Bowie “intended this to be his swan song,” and NME posited that “he was using it to say goodbye to the world.”
Bowie’s longtime producer, Tony Visconti, who helped craft some of Bowie’s best-known albums like “Heroes” and Young Americans, praised his passing on Facebook: “His death was no different from his life — a work of Art.” Right after that, Visconti gave us a key for how to listen to Blackstar, which he called a “parting gift,” by saying, “I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it.”
Jimmy Fallon even playfully pointed out how Bowie’s frantic scribblings at the end of the “Lazarus” video amounted to “For Jimmy, Help Me.”
We can infer, then, that Bowie wrote and recorded Blackstar during his 18-month battle with cancer, so the creeping sense of mortality you hear on the record likely isn’t just you trying to connect the dots on your own.
With that emotionally heavy fact in mind, we will never be able to hear Blackstar without his death looming over it, especially as the words grow more cryptic throughout the songs, as on the finale, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”: “I know something is very wrong/ The pulse returns the prodigal sons/ The blackout hearts, the flowered news/ With skull designs upon my shoes.”
Name-dropping “prodigal sons” and “Lazarus” indicates Bowie’s mind was at least a little attuned to the Bible in his final days, which may explain why the last person he followed on Twitter was, indeed, God.
And being omnipotent and all, God weighed in on Bowie’s passing on Monday (Jan. 11).
David Bowie was the God I always wanted to be.
— God (@TheTweetOfGod) January 11, 2016
You could spend all of Blackstar’s 41 minutes parsing it for more clues that Bowie may have planted, and you’ll certainly come up with plenty, if you’re looking. You could also listen to Blackstar the same way you’d listen to Lodger or Station To Station, as documents of their time and place, reflections of the man who made them and what lives he was living then. Pitchfork’s review of Blackstar (which ran on Jan. 7), begins with a line that is still true, even after his death: “David Bowie has died many deaths yet he is still with us.”
In music, David Bowie will always be with us.