A song so haunting, so chilling, that I was unable to continue the first and second times I heard it.
David begins with an ardent drum beat, an unbalanced two-stanza driving thunder where the kick drum returns in the second stanza with four impacts. It lures you in and then lays down the hammer, over and over until it recedes into the ether of the song.
Accompanying this drum caravan is a soft, crystal-clean rhythm guitar. Its unyielding notes keep the song lunging forward without the possibility of turning back. We know we’re moving ahead into something, and it’s almost familiar. It takes a few moments to recognize the exact song in question…
Then he hits us with a New Orleans dirge, a horn section that descends into sadness. But unlike an actual funeral parade these horns have a tinge of brightness to them, even a playfulness. They call up a funeral, but that’s clearly not all this horn section summons.
Then utter devastation–that guitar–the Bowie guitar, straight from the 1970s. That nasty, intrusive, sliding, distorted, thinly eq’d signature Bowie guitar noise, it’s like he pulled it straight from his own history.
While the horns present a minor descending arpeggio, the guitar immediately screams in a counterpoint: it rises and slides upward toward the sky. Those signature guitar slams soar up toward a moment that I can only imagine David himself saying: “Perfect.”
All of this before a single word is spoken.
This is no ordinary song. Perhaps Bowie’s greatest track since Ashes to Ashes, he just gave a master class to musicians across the world. He took a subject as horrifying and off-putting as his own impending demise and he crafted it into an audible monument, one that anyone can experience into the future. He faced his legacy, and he meticulously plotted just how to present these final days to the world, in a manner they had never experienced before and never will again.
“Look up here, I’m in Heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now”
The first verse is a deliberate haunting, a calling to the listener from beyond the grave. He opened in the future, and it’s undeniable the power and the emotional resonance he brings.
When he reaches the second verse he has backtracked to the present.
“Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below”
This deathbed remembrance returns in the third verse to a long-ago past. Perhaps not so long, it could have been yesterday.
Bowie has chosen the structure of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge remembers his past, sees his present, and then is shown his future. Only Bowie has reversed the ordering, beginning in the future and ending up in New York City, living like a king, back in the 1970s.
The lyrics return to the present with the appearance of a bluebird. Nothing left to lose, Bowie imagines flying away as another blue bird. Why not?
The instruments have come around and largely abandoned the dirge in order to fly. This is a David Bowie song, with his DNA threaded through every layer. This was his message to us, as we face our own inevitable ends. It’s sad, bittersweet, but one of the greatest songs of the past few years, for sure.
When confronted with his final track, David Bowie reached down and he delivered. It’s humbling. It’s beyond words.