For obvious reasons, it’s hard to listen to David Bowie’s Blackstar today. It’s even harder to watch the music videos, particularly the one for swooning single “Lazarus.” The clip, which was released just days before news hit that Bowie had passed away after an unpublicized 18-month battle with cancer, has a squashed aspect ratio, like we're watching on an old square TV set, and it features the legendary weirdo writhing in a hospital bed with gauze over his eyes. Look up here, I'm in heaven, he sings on the song's opening verse. I've got scars that can't be seen/ I've got drama, can't be stolen/ Everybody knows me now.
In a short Facebook post, longtime collaborator Tony Visconti confirmed a truth that Bowie fans had already begun to realize: that Blackstar was a meticulously crafted sign-off from one of the most influential artists ever. Looking back, the fact that he knew his time was limited is pretty conspicuous, and the certainty of death looms over the album’s seven exhilarating tracks, taking the shape of melancholic imagery, irregular rhythms, and downcast chords. On “Dollar Days,” a mostly acoustic ballad that's the closest to canon Bowie that Blackstar's got, he contemplates an afterlife that’s maybe not waiting for him: If I'll never see the English evergreens I’m running to/ It’s nothing to me. And even though the where the fuck did Monday go? refrain on “Girl Loves Me” was surely a coincidence, it feels prophetic of this day—which we’ve spent adrift in teenage daydreams and YouTube k-holes, thinking all the time about what we’ve lost.
While the album’s shuffling beats and jazzy dramatics convey a morbid feeling of uncertainty, Bowie retains a cosmic confidence in the face of death. Blackstar is a big-budget, full-teeth smile at everything he’s accomplished in his extraordinary life. I know something is very wrong, he sings on “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Blackstar’s final track, which includes a ghostly harmonica sample of “A Career in a New Town,” a hopeful instrumental from Bowie’s 1977 album, Low. The titular refrain—I can’t give everything away—is repeated over restless percussion, which eventually gives way to a guitar solo, another self-referential wink at the otherworldly rock & roll that made him a superstar. It’s sad when someone larger-than-life acknowledges their own mortality. But the song is comforting, too; he didn’t give it all away, and there are decades worth of secrets left to uncover, whether it's for the first time or the millionth.
And just like the other Lazarus, the biblical figure that Jesus famously resurrected, Bowie’s story doesn’t really feel over. He’ll be back, whenever a young misfit listens to Low or “Starman” or Young Americans or Hunky Dory for the first time. After, they’ll feel a little bit dangerous and a lot less lonely. If that’s not an honest-to-God miracle, I don’t know what is.