The title track of David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar, is about ISIS. Maybe. Bowie reportedly mentioned the Islamic State to the saxophonist and band leader Donny McCaslin when talking about the song, though the drummer Mark Guiliana and the producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone they had no idea the haunted and haunting 10-minute opener had anything to do with terrorism. Most anyone who listens to the thing would probably say the same. For starters, its first line mentions the Norse village of Ormen, which is not currently in the caliphate.
But that ISIS comment, relayed second-hand, is about all anyone’s got for now about the intentions and meaning of Blackstar from its author: Bowie doesn’t give interviews anymore. Which you might call frustrating—except for the fact that Blackstar could lose some of its considerable magic were it ever fully explained by its creator. Attempting to interpret its mystery, on your own, is part of the appeal.
His 2013 comeback record, The Next Day, collected short pop-rock jams you could throw onto a playlist; Bowie’s 25th full length (actual title: “★”) offers seven epics of alternately terrifying and spellbinding jazz instrumentation over which Bowie bellows phrases like “The blackout hearts the flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes” and somehow makes them catchy. Two interconnected music videos from a Breaking Bad director have preceded it, featuring people convulsing rhythmically, like GIFs, and Bowie crooning from under a burlap blindfold. Fully understanding may be futile, but understand one must try.