In the video for his mournful new song “Lazarus,” David Bowie lies in what looks like a shabby hospital bed, bandages over his eyes, straining his frail body upward.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings over the forlorn wail of a saxophone. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”
On Thursday, when the video was released, it seemed like another dark artistic statement from an artist who has long explored themes of anguish and doom. Today, it feels positively haunting.
As the world reels from the startling news that Bowie died Sunday after a secret 18-month battle with cancer, fans are seeing his final songs and videos in a new light and poring over them for hints of his impending death.
In a staggering stroke of timing, Bowie released an album, ★ (pronounced “Blackstar”), on his 69th birthday Friday — two days before he died. It’s dangerous to assign interpretations to works by artists as complex and intelligent as Bowie, but a listen to the jazz-inflected album, which topped the iTunes charts Monday, reveals a man who appears to be grappling with his own mortality.
Because the British rock star hadn’t been seen much in recent years and rarely gave interviews, some observers are calling ★ Bowie’s farewell, the final message from a global pop icon whose lyrics’ meanings had long been elusive.
“I’m in danger / I’ve got nothing left to lose,” he sings in “Lazarus.” “This way or no way / You know, I’ll be free.”
For fans, listening to the song or watching the video is a surreal experience. It’s hard not to wonder: Was this Bowie saying goodbye?
“He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life — a work of Art,” Bowie’s longtime producer, Tony Visconti wrote, in a Facebook post. “He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.”
The album’s ominous title track, almost 10 minutes long, contains references to death and resurrection.
“Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside / Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar,” he sings.
The video for the song — whose imagery includes a faceless monster, crucified scarecrows, a jeweled skull inside a spaceman’s helmet and Bowie singing with bandages (again) over his eyes — almost defies interpretation.
Saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who plays on the album, told Rolling Stone that Bowie claimed the song is about ISIS, although other collaborators told the magazine they don’t know what the song is about.
“Blackstar” video director Johan Renck was elusive about the song’s meanings in a recent interview with Vice.
“I do think that there’s reason to believe if you’re a prolific artist and going into your late 60s you’d at least start to think about mortality,” Renck said. “And when you get older, this applies to me (as well), you think about the things you want to do and how it will be perceived by your children one day. The opposite of the frontal trajectory, there’s almost a biographical aspect to it, you know? So maybe you change your thinking.”
Indeed, the new album’s last song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” sounds like a rueful meditation from someone nearing the end of their days.
“I know something is very wrong / The pulse returns for prodigal sons / The blackout’s hearts with flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes,” Bowie sings over a skittering beat.
“Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes /This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.”
Of course, in hindsight, it’s maybe too easy to read unintentional meanings into these songs. Only Bowie knows for sure what he was saying. As an always-evolving artist who challenged notions about genres and gender, he is keeping his audience guessing from beyond the grave.