the power of David Bowie’s late work

LazarusRoz Kaveney at the Times Literary Supplement:

From a teenage appearance on a news magazine programme defending his right to wear his hair long to the last mimed videos of wrecked, button-eyed beauty, David Bowie was always in control of, and thoughtful about, how he looked. His last stage appearance – at a charity gala – was a performance of “Life on Mars” crooned in the style of Frank Sinatra. His less than entirely successful experiment with high finance – the Bowie Bonds – nonetheless enabled him to re-purchase the whole of his back catalogue. Even when, in the mid-1970s, his personal life – and in particular his problems with cocaine addiction – span out of control and he made ill-judged remarks about fascism, he continued to develop musically and in other modes of performance, such as theatre and film. He was one of the two or three most conscious and conscientious artists in rock music.

A case can be made – and is strongly implied in the video for the late single “The stars are out tonight”– that Bowie was least creative when happiest, when that control was least threatened by his demons. The last two albums – The Next Day and Blackstar – written and assembled when he knew himself to be dying, were a return to greatness. When one of his last artistic enterprises is as flawed yet patchily brilliant as Lazarus, we have to consider the possibility that its flaws are less than they seem or the result of unavoidable practical choices. His record of sheer quicksilver cleverness – he was also one of the most intellectual of rock stars, in his art school autodidact polymath way – demands that concession of us.

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