Gutted by this morning’s tragic news about the death of David Bowie. His incredible new single “Lazarus” had actually been on repeat in our office the past couple weeks. By way of paltry tribute, here’s the reflection from the back of A Mess of Help, slightly embellished. The world will be a duller place without him:

Cuv6wcARumor has it that David Bowie lobbied for the role of grand elf Elrond in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of The Rings. As good as Hugo Weaving was, Bowie would have been better, and not just because he played more or less to type in Labyrinth. The man appears to possess elven agelessness. He is more than just well-preserved—there’s something downright eerie about how little the years have touched his face, this being the same guy who sang so famously about the inevitability of life’s ch-ch-ch-changes.

Bowie’s physical changelessness means that when he sings about mortality, a curious tension arises. This is precisely what happened on the excellent trio of albums he released around the turn of the century, Hours, Heathen, and Reality. None of them made a particularly big splash commercially. Musically, they found him coming to terms with his past in largely un-embarrassing fashion: top-notch songwriting and singing, some interesting sounds and arrangements, but nothing that could be called boundary-pushing. No radical reinventions, in other words. Only thematically did they tread new ground, with the erstwhile David Jones confronting his mortality with both sneers and tears… and the occasional prayer.

Hours begins with the touching “Thursday’s Child”, setting a wistful tone for the record. The largely acoustic “Survive” continues the looking-back, with Bowie expressing the sense that time is running short, that there are many things he could-have, should-have done, before coming to a rather cold conclusion about survival. The record climaxes, however, with “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell”, a self-referential (Hunky Dory) but not self-reverential tune, in which Bowie breaks out the glammy brimstone:

I’m going to the other side this time
I’m reaching the very edge
You’re still breathing but you don’t know why
Life’s a bit and sometimes you die
You’re still breathing but you just can’t tell
Don’t hold your breath but the pretty things are going to hell

The reflective, regretful mood permeates Heathen as well, probably the overall strongest of the three albums. It starts off with the harrowing slowburner “Sunday”: “For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end / And nothing has changed / Everything has changed”. But things soon heat up with the hard-charging “Afraid”, where David continues to parse the meaning of failed dreams and vaguely impending doom: “I put my faith in tomorrow / I believe we’re not alone / I believe in Beatles / I believe my little soul has grown / And I’m still so afraid / Yes, I’m still so afraid”. Cagey stuff, but that’s Bowie. The only break in the clouds comes in “Everyone Says Hi”, a killer ode to a lost friend with an upbeat chorus that urges us, “Don’t stay in the bad place”.

Reality, released only a year later, is where things took a surprising turn, even by Bowie standards. “Never Get Old” is a characteristically arch bit of self-parody, and “New Killer Star” has some 9/11 overtones, which thankfully don’t prevent it from being his best single in years. Then he really gets down to business on the dour title track, which references Jacques Brel (as well as Scott Walker):

Now my sight is failing in this twilight…
Now ‘my death’ is more than just a sad song…
I still don’t remember how this happened
I still don’t get the wherefores and the whys
I look for sense but I get next to nothing
Hey boy welcome to reality

But it is “Days”, a short acoustic number buried in the middle of the record, that commands the most attention. In interviews, Bowie mentioned it as one of his favorites, and while perhaps not the most sonically compelling thing he has ever done, the words catapult the song into the stratosphere. “Days” is a prayer of thanksgiving to God.

David had mined this territory before, most notably in 1976’s “Word on a Wing”.[1] But “Days” is a considerably more sober affair. “All I’ve done, I’ve done for me / All you gave, you gave for free / I gave nothing in return”, he confesses. His relationship with the Almighty has not been characterized by reciprocity, it would appear, but by its opposite. We are close to what author Francis Spufford meant when he referred to Christ as “love without cost-controls engaged”. Theologians have a word for this kind of lopsided ‘exchange’, which is arguably unique to the Christian understanding of salvation: monergism.[2]

Bowie gives credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t make it any less disorienting. Of course, this is The Man Who Fell to Earth—he has made a career out of keeping us guessing.[3]

Along with the gratitude, he expresses a sense of indebtedness. “All the days of my life I owe you”, David sings, wearily. Perhaps he knows the ‘debt’ is not his to pay. All he has to offer is ceaseless need. The song’s bridge even finds him back where he started:

In red-eyed pain I’m knocking on your door again
My crazy brain in tangles
Pleading for your gentle voice
Those storms keep pounding through my head and heart
I pray you’ll soothe my sorry soul

It would be more than a decade before Bowie made another record. In the interim the only reports of his activity had to do with serious-sounding health problems. Which may mean he had quite a bit more praying to do. Let’s just hope he made it to the church on time.

May he rest in peace.

[1] Some commentators dismissed the overt religious sentiment of “Word on a Wing”, and the Station to Station album more broadly, as a cocaine-induced delusion or as Bowie in full Thin White Duke character, but the man himself has claimed that “the passion is genuine”. When performing it live in 1999, the singer described it as coming from “the darkest days of my life… I’m sure that it was a call for help”. Speaking of the title song from that record, he once remarked “The ‘Station to Station’ track itself is very much concerned with the stations of the cross… I’ve never read a review that really sussed it. It’s an extremely dark album. Miserable time to live through, I must say.”

[2] Let us never forget Bowie’s finest moment as Lutheran theologian, which beautifully coincided with what many considered to be an artistic lowpoint, 1988’s “Loving the Alien”. The song serves as a sublime illustration of Martin Luther’s concept of “alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith. Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: ‘Mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.’ Everything which Christ has is ours, graciously bestowed on us unworthy men out of God’s sheer mercy…”

[3] For instance, the time David stopped traffic at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992 by leading Wembley Stadium in an impromptu recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. It was one of the wildest, coolest, most unexpected moves in a career full of them (akin to his “Little Drummer Boy” duet with Bing Crosby). Added profundity points for timing it moments after his final performance with original Spider from Mars Mick Ronson.