On The Enduring Power Of David Bowie's Parting Gift Blackstar, the album Bowie released days before his death in January, set the tone for a fraught year. "This was an album that many of us returned to to cope with 2016," says NPR's Ann Powers.
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On The Enduring Power Of David Bowie's Parting Gift

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On The Enduring Power Of David Bowie's Parting Gift

On The Enduring Power Of David Bowie's Parting Gift

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is the time of year when music critics go back through all the albums of 2016 and rank them. And there is what may be to some a surprising name at the top of a lot of those lists - the late, great David Bowie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKSTAR")

DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a meter then stepped aside.

MARTIN: The album is called "Blackstar" and it was the pop icon's last album before he died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKSTAR")

BOWIE: I'm a blackstar. I'm a blackstar.

MARTIN: NPR's music critic Ann Powers says it set the tone for music throughout the entire year. Ann joins us now to talk more about it. Hi, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel. How are you today?

MARTIN: I'm doing well. So a huge name, this huge important album that you say you could feel in other works throughout 2016. How so?

POWERS: I think it's safe to say that many of us had a surprisingly challenging year in 2016. Aside from Bowie, there were many other significant music losses including Prince and Leonard Cohen, many others.

MARTIN: Yeah.

POWERS: So to have this beautiful work that gently carries us into the next realm, but at the same time violently engages with the struggle to live and to die. This was an album that many of us returned to to cope with 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BOWIE SONG, "LAZARUS")

MARTIN: David Bowie was fighting cancer when he was making this album and we should say he died just days after its release. Was he in a way writing his own eulogy with this?

POWERS: I mean, there's no doubt that Bowie was aware of how very, very sick he was, but he also kept the dire nature of his illness from his collaborators and insisted that he would be able to continue on. So does it feel like a dying man's gasp? No, it doesn't. It feels so eloquent, yet it offers this view into that experience that is useful to all of us even as it's so sad to listen to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAZARUS")

BOWIE: (Singing) Look up here, I'm in heaven.

MARTIN: And the music itself is distinct, right? It's really different than the Bowie that a lot of us grew up listening to.

POWERS: It's different than the Bowie of "Life On Mars?" or "Let's Dance," but it is consistent with the other major strain throughout Bowie's career which was really art music and experimenting.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BOWIE SONG, "LAZARUS")

POWERS: For this work, Bowie was working with jazz musicians, notably Donny McCaslin and his quartet. So it's different than what you hear on the radio, but it's very much a through-line with his earlier stuff. And, in fact, I think he was looking back on his own canon and those memories are embedded in these songs.

MARTIN: There's obviously a huge emotional component to this work, but as a critic, how do you think it stacks up - this album - against his best work?

POWERS: Oh, I think it will remain in the major canon of David Bowie's work. It's remarkable how well he orchestrated his whole career. Here is a man who began with a plan, who began with an idea to change rock 'n' roll, to make it into a total art form that had room for elements taken from film and theater and all kinds of musical styles. And he did that every phase of his career and with this final one, he realized it beautifully.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY")

BOWIE: (Singing) I know something's very wrong.

MARTIN: NPR music critic Ann Powers. Thanks so much, Ann.

POWERS: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY")

BOWIE: (Singing) The blackout hearts, the flowered news with skull designs upon my shoes. I can't give...

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