Design among the stars – in search of the secrets of the ★ sleeve

In his artwork for David Bowie’s last album, designer Jonathan Barnbrook provided the musician’s fans with a range of hidden elements to discover. Intrigued by the findings – and the theories behind them – our columnist finally opens up his own vinyl copy to see for himself

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For almost a year now, I’ve owned a sealed copy of ★. I haven’t listened to it, not once. Somewhere between ordering it and receiving it, the unthinkable happened and the context of David Bowie’s final album changed in an instant.

Bowie knew what was coming – he always knew what was coming – so it soon became apparent that this wasn’t merely a collection of new songs. It was an end, a farewell, a sealed envelope on the pillow of a hospital bed. So when it finally arrived, I filed it away and took solace in denial – not prepared for whatever sadness, fear and mortality it might contain.

The record has spent the entirety of this ridiculous year hibernating amongst the rest of my LPs, untouched and unheard. Until today. Today I’m ripping it open.

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Why now? Because enough time has passed. Because I’ve been desensitised by months of eulogising and mourning and tributing and covering and reassessing.

Mostly, because I’m fascinated by the secrets that people keep finding, hidden within the design of the thing. In a recent interview with BBC 6 Music’s Mary Anne Hobbs, designer Jonathan Barnbrook acknowledged that there is more to the design of the album than is immediately apparent:

“There are a number of black stars in the album … it’s not just the five-pointed star on the front. And they do symbolise different things in life. For instance, there’s the ‘rosette’ which looks a little bit like a price ticket. That’s to say, well, this is still a commercial product; you still buy it. There’s the ‘guiding star’, the idea of a person who you follow in your life or the idea of something spiritual which music gives you. So there are a lot of other things going on which aren’t absolutely at the surface, but I do hope people see them. And not necessarily straight away, as well.”

Well that sounds like a challenge to me. So I’ve got my copy out of the plastic, I’ve carefully removed the actual record (mmm, feels weighty) and I’m going to see what I can see.

A few months after ★ was released, somebody on Reddit noticed something peculiar – when the sleeve is exposed to sunlight, stars appear in the blackness.

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Image by BoldlyGettingThere on Reddit

I hold my copy up to the light … a bit more … angled this way … and that … and sure enough, when pushed up against a sunny window, as shown below, it’s full of stars.

(This is the only album that doesn’t actually have Bowie on the cover – his absence occupied by the die-cut star – although you can reverse the inner booklet and a photograph of Bowie fits nicely in that space.)

The stars themselves look like they’re projected through the sleeve from a ‘star-field’ image on the inside of the gatefold, although quite what that is depicting is unclear.

Staring at them, there does appear to be some kind of pattern – a figure seems to emerge from the dots. A star … man? Is Mars on there somewhere perhaps? Or is it a specific cluster of stars, a particular constellation?

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Others have pointed out that ‘black star’ may refer to a particular kind of cancer lesion, and that one of the typefaces used in the design is called Terminal – so could this perhaps be an image of the Cancer constellation?

(It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that Bowie has incorporated visual puns into his record sleeves – his Low ‘profile’ springs to mind.)

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And, in a certain light, you can see a reflection in this glossy image of the portrait on the opposite page, shown above, so it kind of looks like Bowie is amongst the stars. Maybe this is intentional, maybe not.

What other little wonders are there? Parts of the booklet glow under ultraviolet light (surely typical of all UV coating?); if you add up all of the points of all the stars that appear throughout the booklet, they add up to 69 – which kind of looks like the astrological symbol for Cancer (plus the album was released on Bowie’s 69th birthday); and theories relating to the occult symbology of Aleister Crowley persist.

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The album sleeve under ‘black light’ – first noticed and tweeted by RobboRobson21

And what of the secrets in the vinyl itself? There is some talk on Reddit about whether or not there’s a track hidden under the label – a discussion that soon descends into people egging each other one to destroy their copy in the name of discovery.

Others report that light reflects off the record in interesting ways, projecting stars or spacecraft or even morse code. Try as I might, I struggle to replicate this.

Pretty soon, I’m knee-deep in spurious fan-theories, nice little coincidences that might mean something/nothing/anything. I’m fairly sure most of this is hogwash, but the more you look, the more this game drags you in.

I feel like the hero in a particularly glam Dan Brown novel – soon I’m grasping at straws/stars to find my own theories. Hang on, that black star is actually unicode symbol 2605 … the 26th of May … google google google … Mick Ronson’s birthday … and that must be … of course! … that’s when Paul McCartney died, right? Right?

All of this easter egg hunting is exhausting and it’s knackering my very-recently-pristine copy of the album (for a moment I think I’ve found some interesting symbols, but upon closer inspection, it turns out they’re my fingerprints and a bit of eyelash).

Worst of all, it’s detracting from the beautiful design of the album. It’s sombre and playful, continuing the imagery found in previous Barnbrook/Bowie collaborations, particularly the distorted obscured type and portraiture of Heathen and The Next Day.

The print echoes the darkness and gloss of the vinyl – the music and art are inseparable. This design works despite the secrets, not because of them.

The final track of this final album is called I Can’t Give Everything Away. Only Barnbrook knows what’s hidden amongst the stars of this square monolith, and he’s keeping schtum. Well, kind of – “There’s one big thing which people haven’t discovered yet on the album,” he said in his 6 Music interview. “Let’s just say if people find it, they find it, and if they don’t, they don’t.”

Intriguing. But that’s enough for now. Time to put the sleeve down, put the record on and listen.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York and he writes a monthly column for CR. All images above by Daniel, unless otherwise stated. Our extensive interview with Jonathan Barnbrook about the ★ work is here.

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