On 9th January , I wrote that David Bowie’s ★ was going to be my album of the year. It was an audacious claim to make just over one week into the year, and to be honest, I’d fully expected to hear something better by mid-October. Naturally, I remain utterly speechless at the suddenness of his passing only two days later, just as I am eternally in awe of the beautiful way he bade us farewell. I continue to listen to ★ with wide-eyes and palpitations in my chest; I’m confident now that actually will define this year for me.
This then, the cast recording from the musical Bowie was working on immediately before he died, is a fascinating thing. Peppered with selections both trivial and legendary, the track listing represents the excellent breadth of the starman’s career, rendered invariably, to incredibly high, experimental standards. Such is the clever reworking of this music in fact, that I’ve been moved to book tickets for the London shows in December – I’m desperate to see how this works in a theatrical framework.
Here, I can only really talk about the music. The songs, as you know, are fantastic. For the most part, the performances are too. Take the fruity, brassy version of Lazarus; or the spacious examination of Low’s Always Crashing in the Same Car. One thing you can say for sure: everything here has been theatre-proofed, with just enough added buoyancy and enthusiasm to work without heavy compromise. The stand-out for me here is Life On Mars – an obvious choice perhaps, but the piano is gorgeous and Sophia Anne Caruso’s vocal is heartbreaking. Every now and again there is a clanger: The Man Who Sold The World, for example, has been reimagined as a horrendous trance anthem, recalling Pet Shop Boys’ mid-90s stagnancy; not dissimilarly, Heroes has been slowed to a funeral march and… I don’t know… I’m just not sure. Elsewhere, it’s good, but too close instrumentally to the original thing (case-in-point: Valentine’s Day, which, bar vocals, is an almost identical arrangement to the version included on The Next Day). Let’s be fair in our assessment however: not only is the soundtrack element pretty good overall – it’s also not the main event.
Accompanying the soundtrack is a second disc comprising the final recordings made by Bowie prior to his death. Whilst I’m not a fan of the wastefully sparse surplus discs you get in deluxe box sets nowadays (coughAMoonShapedPoolcough), it’s a tasteful touch here. Arguably, these bonus tracks (Bowie’s last recordings before his death) are the major selling point of the release – with that in mind, the curatorial decision to include a second disc seems to respect the soundtrack’s individuality, as well as you, the consumer (who remembers The Next Day Extra?) Alternatively, you might see disc two as a clever marketing tool for selling the more niche first disc. For some reason, we also get Bowie’s version of the song Lazarus, duplicated from ★ onto this CD – weird really, given that you’re almost certainly going to have heard it before if you’re in the listening demographic for this soundtrack. Whatever your position anyways, now is no time for cynicism; these 11-and-a-half minutes are precious.
All three songs are interesting, particularly given the impossibility of their alternate interpretation – whilst those early to the ★ party got a chance to wrestle with the record’s oddly optimistic morbidity, later arrivals were more or less forced to consider the music as a response to Bowie’s terminal preoccupation.
Killing A Little Time is a ferocious jazzy stomper in the vein of ★’s Tis a Pity She Was a Whore. “I’ve got a handful of songs to sing,” Bowie growls; “to sting your soul / to fuck you over”. It’s an aggressive track, with skidding saxophones and driving guitar. It would’ve sat comfortably on ★ too, though its relative obviousness may just answer for its original absence – it’s probably the least obtuse lyric to have emerged from the sessions, with inward references to “fading’”, “falling” an “choking”. That’s easy to say in retrospect, however; like ★ proper, it’s difficult now to think outside the black, black box. The same is true of No Plan, a far from stealthy assessment of Bowie’s questions for the impossible future. Final number, When I Met You, is less to grapple with and more to enjoy, utilising uncertain, major-key dynamics and resulting in an oddly uplifting track – one still fraught however, with the apparently unshakable discordance of these sessions (synth-percussion blips in the opening; a clanging guitar tone after the choruses, etc.) It’s hard to choose a favourite from these new songs. They all compliment ★ wonderfully, each to its own and, regardless of lyrical clarity, in the strikingly beautiful manner you’ve come to expect from late-period Bowie.
That’s it then, it would seem: the very last “new” recordings by David Bowie, and the cast recording from his final project. The end, then? Well, undoubtedly, in years to come, new material will continue to surface from the various phases of Bowie’s chameleon career. Just last month, in fact, the long-thought-destroyed 1976 LP, The Gouster, was included on the second box-set in RCA’s retrospective re-issues campaign. In the words of the Sex Pistols, titling their first posthumous compilation, there’s any amount of “flogging a dead horse” that may or may not come to pass. This soundtrack however, is a truly neat thing, illustrating the degree of Bowie’s influence, directly in tandem with his unparalleled artistry. To the casual listener perhaps, I’d wager it’s no more than a fun curious; for real fans of ★ however, this is essential listening.
Picks:Life on Mars, performed by Sophia Anne Caruso; Always Crashing in the Same Car, performed by Cristin Milloti; Killing a Little Time, performed by David Bowie.