News of David Bowie’s death on January 10 2016 shocked the world. Just two days earlier, the musician had turned 69 and released his 25th studio album, Blackstar.
The album has since been interpreted as a parting gift from a musician who knew it would be his last. Fans have pointed to clues in the lyrics to Lazarus – a track which begins “Look up here, I’m in heaven!” – and the song’s accompanying video, which shows Bowie singing from a hospital bed.
The all-black artwork for the vinyl edition, designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, can also be seen as a reflection on mortality. It is the first of Bowie’s albums not to feature an image of him on the cover. Instead, there is only absence – a star-shaped cut out revealing the record underneath. An accompanying lyrics book contains an image of a starry sky and another of Bowie standing against a backdrop of golden clouds.
Barnbrook worked closely with Bowie on the design of the album. Speaking to CR in late 2015, he was reluctant to assign any specific meaning to the cover, but said he wanted to create something that would stand out for its simplicity.
“Nowadays … we are assaulted by thousands of images of different ideologies everyday – and the only way to break through this is with simplicity and clarity. I don’t mean ‘simple’ as in ‘legible’ – because something simple can still be open to interpretation – but an aesthetic that is very bold without decoration,” he said.
“In some senses I’ve done the perfect Spinal Tap cover – in the film they receive their newly-pressed album and it is just shiny black with nothing else on it, but the subtleties are what makes the design in this,” he continued.
Barnbrook spent many “painful” hours creating a logotype out of stars for the front cover, ensuring Bowie’s name was legible but not immediately recognisable. “I tried many different stars and endless combinations for this one, but I think this has the right balance. There is a hint of the glam David Bowie here. I know it’s just a logo of bits of stars, but I think it is important to have a little of Bowie’s past in it,” he said.
The design tops our list not just for the attention to detail – every element is carefully considered – but also for the hidden surprises contained within it.
Since its release, fans have continued to discover new features: exposing the album to sunlight reveals a galaxy of stars and the star in its centre glows a luminous blue when placed under UV light. Shining a light on the cover at certain angles casts a star-shaped reflection and one fan has claimed to spot the outline of a man in the image of a galaxy of stars, possibly a reference to Bowie’s track Starman.
Speaking to Mary Anne Hobbs on BBC 6 Music in November, Barnbrook said there are still some discoveries to be made: “Actually, there’s one big thing which people haven’t discovered yet on the album. Let’s just say, if people find it, they find it, and if they don’t, they don’t,” he said. It’s a fitting tribute to an artist who continued to surprise throughout his career.
You can read CR columnist Dan Benneworth-Gray’s article on his attempts to uncover the secrets of the ★ sleeve here.