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The Year of the Goodbye Album

On bittersweet parting gifts from David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Phife Dawg

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

A man writhes in his sickbed with a thick bandage obscuring his eyes, but of course we still recognize the face: It’s David Bowie. “Look up here,” he sings, “I’m in heaven,” the first words of a haunted, mournful song and video called “Lazarus,” also the name of an off-Broadway musical he wrote and that was going into production around the same time the single was released. Lazarus the musical revisited one of Bowie’s most famous alter egos, Thomas Jerome Newton, the quizzical alien he played in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. In the film Newton struggles to connect to the humans around him because — much like the biblical Lazarus, though unlike Bowie himself — he cannot die.

Bowie released the “Lazarus” video on January 7, 2016, and at the time his return to the Newton character seemed like a darkly playful meta-exploration of his past, not unlike when he resurrected Major Tom (quite worse for the wear) in “Ashes to Ashes.” But “Lazarus” took on a completely new meaning just three days later, on January 10, when Bowie died. The news shocked the world: The cause of death was the cancer he had been hiding from everyone but those closest to him. In retrospect, it’s clear that the “Lazarus” video was his way of art-directing his own death; his longtime producer Tony Visconti said that Bowie had intended for the album it appears on, Blackstar, to be a “parting gift.”

This gift was an eerie but necessary comfort in 2016, a year during which it often seemed like everyone important was jumping ship from this mortal coil. (So much so that someone Photoshopped all the celebrities who died this year into the most depressing Sgt. Pepper’s tribute ever.) To some extent, this was a quirk of perception in the digital age: Social media amplifies the experience of every high-profile death, making mass grief public, performative, and unprecedentedly visible. (Contrast the experience of Bowie’s death to that of Joe Strummer, or Aaliyah, or Elliott Smith.) But when you look at the “In Memoriam” reels, there’s no denying that 2016 was an especially shitty year, and that the music world was hit particularly hard. We lost the otherworldly genius Prince at the unfairly young age of 57. Sixty-year-old Sharon Jones succumbed to the cancer she had been fighting since 2013. Elder legends like Leon Russell, Merle Haggard, and experimental pioneer Pauline Oliveros all made their exits. But it was Bowie’s passing — and his release of Blackstar — that set the tone; his was the year’s first but not last goodbye album. A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg (who posthumously appears throughout the group’s final record, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service) and sagacious songwriter Leonard Cohen (who released his excellent You Want It Darker just three weeks before his death in November) each got to convey some last words to faithful listeners. Of course, this year wasn’t the first time an artist released an album close to his death (see: Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, which came out two weeks after he was killed, or J. Dilla’s Donuts, released three days before his death) or the first time popular music has reflected on mortality (see: roughly 39 percent of songs ever written and 97 percent of songs ever written by Morrissey). But each of these records represented something rare: Artists who knew they were in ill health and put their final energies into finishing a record that exists somewhere between here and the beyond. The resulting records are sometimes difficult to listen to, but there’s something deeply comforting about them, too. At least these artists didn’t go out in silence.

Blackstar is certainly the creepiest of these records, not to mention one of the darkest releases of Bowie’s entire career (it’s the only album on which you could reasonably confuse him with his longtime idol, the macabre baritone Scott Walker). The 10-minute-long opening track features a skittish, droning first section on which Bowie moans such phrases as, “On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile.” “Girl Loves Me” has a jerky, uneasy tempo, like dance music for zombies. Several of its songs are gentle, even pretty, but even in its most pleasant moments, Blackstar offers cold comfort for those looking for a simple, greeting card wisdom from a man staring down the great mystery of death. But then again, Bowie never was one for simplicity or sentimentality. The closest he gets to a comforting image comes at the end of “Lazarus,” the fabled ascension: “Just like that bluebird / Oh, I’ll be free / Ain’t that just like me?”

The final Tribe Called Quest album is called We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, although cofounder Q-Tip is not exactly sure why. His groupmate and lifelong friend Phife Dawg had picked it, but by the time the record was released he wasn’t around anymore to explain it. “I don’t know [what it means],” Tip said in a melancholy New York Times feature in November. “We’re just going with it because he liked it.”

We Got It From Here is the first Tribe record in 18 years, and from the first track it’s apparent how vital the group’s voices still are, how profoundly their particular brand of grounded, lived-in wisdom was needed this year. (It came out, mercifully, three days after the presidential election.) “It’s time to go left and not right,” the album begins, Tip’s and Phife’s voices joined in indistinguishable unison, “Gotta get it together for brothers, gotta get it together for sisters.” Though others circle their orbit (the elusive MC Jarobi, producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, frequent sidekick Busta Rhymes), A Tribe Called Quest is, at its core, a conversation between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, buddies since they were 4 years old. One of the simplest pleasures of their music was always hearing the joy they take in kicking it back and forth to each other, the chummy affection with which they say each other’s names. “You on point, Phife?” goes one of ATCQ’s most iconic refrains. The response: “All the time, Tip.”

Phife had never kept his disease a secret: “When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” he famously asked on Midnight Marauders. But the other members of the band weren’t aware of how quickly his health was failing as he laid down his verses for the new album. And it’s unclear if he knew how ill he was, either, though Q-Tip now believes Phife was consciously putting his affairs in order, particularly making sure their sometimes tumultuous friendship was on solid ground. Phife’s final months were spent flying between his home near Oakland and Tip’s home studio in New Jersey, and some people who worked on the record believe that this wore him down beyond repair. “Doing this album killed him,” Jarobi said in the Times article. “And he was very happy to go out like that.”

After Phife passed away in March, Q-Tip finished the album, which meant he had to listen to countless recordings of his dead friend’s voice. But the miraculous thing about We Got It From Here is that the music still sounds like a seamless conversation, even if some of Tip’s vocals (possibly some of the ones in which he addresses Phife by name) were recorded after Phife’s death. It’s a chat between a man and a memory, but that doesn’t mean it sounds mawkish. These tracks are some of the most aurally adventurous they’ve ever put to tape: The hypnotic “Solid Wall of Sound” is built around perhaps the weirdest hook that Elton John hook ever sang; the low air-raid beat behind “We the People…” grinds its gears like something off of Yeezus.

Phife’s death is an unavoidable theme of this record, but Tribe’s members were never sentimentalists and for the majority of the record they interact with him as though he’s still right there in the room — until we get to the 12th track, “Lost Somebody,” an open-hearted ode to the life of the man born Malik Taylor. Jarobi captures him perfectly: “Heart of a largest lion trapped inside the little dude.” It’s one of the rare tracks on the record on which we don’t hear Phife’s voice, and that absence throbs. Much more comforting, though, is the closing track, “The Donald” (a nod to Phife’s nickname, Don Juice), a fitting tribute because it’s more of a party than eulogy. “Fuck your ass-cheek flows, with bars sweeter than scones,” Phife boasts from the beyond — a hilarious cosmic mic-drop. Everyone else’s rhymes are about him, cut through with an air of remembrance, (“Phife Dawg, you spit wicked every verse”) but they speak of him in present tense. Great records can be time warps like that: séances, conjurings. Press play and Phife lives.

In early August, a letter circulated on the internet that 82-year-old Leonard Cohen had written to his former muse, Marianne Ihlen, who was dying of leukemia. “Well Marianne,” it read, “it’s come to this time when we really are so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” It concluded: “I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

That letter may have seemed like an odd thing to go viral, but it struck a universal human nerve. There was something both chilling and deeply comforting in the way which Cohen spoke of his own death: matter-of-factly, like an upcoming vacation, devoid of any discernible sense of foreboding or fear. For decades, people had looked to Cohen for an almost otherworldly wisdom, perhaps because he found a way to explore so many seemingly opposing spiritual practices; he was a Jew who spent five years in a monastery. Even from a young age, he carried himself like a man who knew the answer to a great riddle. If anyone among us was going to die correctly, it was going to be Leonard Cohen.

You Want It Darker is quiet enough that you could play it around a sleeping baby. In his final years, Cohen’s voice had become something entirely different from the plaintive balm of his 1967 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen. It was now gravelly, gruff, and so contemplatively quiet that you want to lean forward into these songs. The title track floats along a dark cloud of backing vocals that sound like Gregorian chants. He knows he has few words left, and he’s not here to mince them: “Hineni, hineni / I’m ready, my Lord.”

It’s final. You Want It Darker is a settling of scores, a tying of loose ends. Songs have titles like “Leaving the Table” and “Travel Light” — they’re sparse, direct, and at times (like all of Cohen’s music) bleakly funny. But the best song on this wonderful album isn’t a goodbye so much as an apology, an assertion that love matters right up until the end. It’s called “Treaty,” and it’s sung to a former flame; unlike Marianne, she goes unnamed. “I’m sorry for that ghost I made you be,” he trembles, a deep yearning in his voice. “Only one of us was real, and that was me.”

In a New Yorker profile also released shortly before his death, Cohen seemed content to let go of the big questions about an afterlife. “I don’t ask for information that I probably wouldn’t be able to process even if it were granted to me,” he said when asked. Bowie’s videos approached the question more speculatively, and playfully: They’re full of allusions to heaven, ascension, and dark riffs on Christian imagery. Who can say which of them got it right. These goodbye records beckon with so many unanswerable mysteries: We’ll never know how close each of these men felt to death when they were recording them; exactly what, if any, clues about life they were leaving for us in their music. But perhaps they worked with such urgency to complete these albums because they knew, from the music of their long-gone heroes, that the only certain afterlife is the one on wax.