One of the regular functions of popular music is to distract us from our worries. To punctuate the good times and help us forget about the bleak ones. Not all pop stars are brainless optimists 100% of the time, but few have resorted to glossy escapism less frequently than David Bowie did over the course of a nearly 50-year career. From a young age, even the catchiest of Bowie’s compositions were immersed in the human condition, whether it was an astronaut meeting his maker in “Space Oddity” or the unyielding biological clock that powered “Changes.” This is one of the countless reasons why his death on Sunday struck such a resounding chord. Through every massively influential reinvention, he never condescended to us by refusing to challenge us. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality, but it was also urgently, kaleidoscopically sexy, a reminder that accepting the inevitable can set you free. He stared wide-eyed into the void and never sugarcoated anything. But he also never depressed us. He raised us right.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his final album Blackstar is a profound work of art made in the face of death. Released two days before his passing, Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record, ending his transmission to us all. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one of his most wrenchingly beautiful songs, the sound of nostalgia and regret making way for peace. From an artist who so convincingly sang about heroes with limited time, it’s perfect.