❉ “I’ve got a handful of songs to sing, to sting your soul, to fuck you over.” We react to David Bowie’s final recordings.
‘These codas are a celebration of the vitality he had right up to the end’
New Bowie songs. After the glorious final flourish and the the mourning it seems a strange idea that he isn’t done; still sending us messages in a bottle from the afterlife. He’s gone but he’s not done; a very Bowie thing. Even though he’s dead the great actor can still return for his curtain call and encore.
So begins the auspicious task of listening to three new Bowie songs. Supposedly the last three to be completed in his lifetime, although we’ll be surprised if it’s the last new Bowie songs ever to be completed (Visconti has already spoken of plans do more things with other recordings).
Truth is we’re all going to be looking to read intimations of mortality into these last songs; Bowie gazing into the abyss and giving us some guidance that might be useful when it’s our turn. It’s an overwhelming temptation but it’s wrong; Bowie mined a largely reflective seam since the release of hours and any of those albums could read as a graceful finale; death’s been a recurrent fascination in Bowie’s work (60s gravediggers; Major Tom lost amongst the stars and all the way through to Lazarus) and, as Bowie’s words on the wall of the David Bowie Is exhibition reminded us, all art is subject to multiple interpretations. It’s facile, it’s easy but it’s irresistible. And these songs, apparently the last he recorded, serve not only as a coda to his work but are deliberately designed to function as part of the Lazarus musical; they’re working both as part of a designed story and the saga of Bowie that we’re all telling ourselves.
That said, the big regret of hearing these last recordings is that he didn’t have more time with this last band; persuading jazz musicians to venture into Bowie’s magpie version of rock was his true final masterstroke.
❉ ‘No Plan’
I kept telling myself that this isn’t Bowie singing but Thomas Jerome Newton. Then I checked the Lazarus Cast LP listings and see that this song is to be sung by Sophia Anne Caruso (‘Newton’s muse’ it says on Wikipedia). A concept much easier to deal with, although I can’t help wondering whether these are songs written especially for Lazarus or songs Bowie wrote a while back which have been repurposed for the musical. I can’t help but hear David Bowie singing this rather than the character in the play. He’s singing with what I call the ‘true-Bowie’ voice, without any artifice, probably first shown on Wild Is The Wind and showcased on ‘…hours’ & Toy in particular. It’s a heartbreaker in the Where Are We Now? tradition. – @leoconsole
As with the rest of the ‘Lazarus’ tracks it’s moot as to how much Bowie is singing in character as Newton, but as Bowie croons “Am I nowhere now?/No plan”, it’s hard not to draw parallels with those songs. Musically and lyrically No Plan would have fitted seamlessly on ‘Blackstar’, especially with the McCaslin band’s intricate, mysterioso arrangement, adorned with chiming guitars, and moving deftly through shifting chord progressions like Absolute Beginners lost in wee hours New York. – @
The fragility of his voice shocks every bit as much as it did on a first listen to Where Are We Now. The similarity extends to the narrative: an aimless, melancholy wander through a city he has been familiar with (New York in this case). Impossible not to hear it as a kind of will, or death rattle. As with all of Bowie’s best work, an ambiguity borne out of searing honesty: He’s lost (and afraid?) but he has nothing to regret. He’s dying but ‘Not quite yet…’ Swooning chords, mournful sax, little trills of synth escaping into the air like sparks from a bonfire. Beautiful. – @
Bowie in chanson mode; where much of his best remembered material has a raw power this harks back to the fragility found at the heart of the likes of Life On Mars?; a cracked vocal in a final torch song. If it was the final song it’d be heart-breaking. – @
❉ ‘When I Met You’
When I Met You is a mid-tempo rocker with some spiralling chord changes, and a distressed, Bewlay-choir of Bowies singing different vocal parts spilling out at the choruses. It’s reminiscent of the more trad parts of ‘The Next Day’, and perhaps conscious of this, dismantles itself at the end, leaving the various Bowies talking over each other and the hammering drums. There’s also perhaps a little ghost of Loving The Alien and Where Are We Now? lurking in the chord sequences. – @
When I Met You is the most straightforward of the songs; beats which wouldn’t be out of place on ‘Earthling’, giving way to a nervy rock song about love being a kind of salvation. If you’re being reductive you can read it as a last love note to Iman. – @
As close as Bowie got to a straight rock song in recent years, with nice 50s slapback echo on the vocals. Lyrics conjure up images of the skeletal David Live mixing cocaine, milk & black magic. – @leoconsole
I think the strongest of the three. Sizzling synth and Sonic Youth/Evol guitars drag us into another dimly-lit room where someone wants us to hear a declaration of love and salvation. But since it’s Bowie he wants us to feel the pain with the joy, the disease as well as the cure. Again, hard not to see it as a personal history of a relationship (with Iman? With his daughter Lexi?) but we must remember he is ostensibly speaking as Newton, the alien-in-New-York protagonist of ‘Lazarus’. Nevertheless, as the music swells and churns quietly but relentlessly (the repetitive, chant-like, robotic chorus is pure Bowie: You can imagine him barking it somewhere on the ‘Diamond Dogs’ album) he speaks of being blind, being mute, off his head, filled with the wrong kind of truth.The object of his salvation has opened his eyes, put a tongue in his head and (it’s suggested in the final line) brought him to God.
Analysing it like this it seems monumental. Maybe it will take its place in the grand canon alongside Word On A Wing as another portrait of a man struggling to explain to himself why he’s found faith and what it means. – @
❉ ‘Killing A Little Time’
Killing A Little Time is by far the most aggressive of the three new tracks, opening with clangorous octopoid drums and a lurching riff that have almost could come from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, and just carries on building as layers of doomy brass weave through it a la Sue. The best thing about it is the startling lead vocal, in which Bowie really lets go, raging and howling like a man possessed. His proclamation early on that “I’ve got a handful of songs to sing, to stain your soul, to fuck you over…” is going to keep the academics guessing for a while. The chorus of “I’m falling man/I’m choking man/I’m fading man/Just killing a little time” is sadly, a little less open to interpretation. – @
I can imagine Thomas Jerome Newton changing channels on his wall on TVs whilst guzzling booze (I’m hoping some clever YouTuber edits some videos together for these songs with ‘Man Who Fell To Earth’ clips). The Blackstar band in full effect here. Amazing how I’m already thinking of that band as a classic Bowie backing band. This is cut from the same cloth as Sue and ‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore, with an air of menace about it. – @leoconsole
“I’m falling, man …. I’m choking, man … I’m fading, man … just killing a little time.” It’s so hard not to take this as another acknowledgment of Bowie’s impending death, with Donny McCaslin’s band an angry whirl of drums, guitars and wind around the words, ready to cut anyone who gets too close to the narrator. Is it Bowie? Is it the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, raging against the world in which he’s become trapped? Is it an aged Ziggy, pushing away friends the same way he once told them “Don’t lean on me, man”? “I’ve got a handful of songs to sing, to sting your soul, to fuck you over.” This is absolutely the angriest, most lacerating Bowie lyric I’ve ever heard. And it’s so good to hear him again. – @
Killing A Little Time, probably the last ‘new’ Bowie song we’ll ever hear, is a ‘1. Outside’ level of heaviness raging against the dying of the light; a regret that there isn’t more time and that there isn’t time for more than ‘a handful of songs to fuck you over.’ If he’s going out, he’s going out kicking and screaming and still trying to look forward; to make something new out of the all the musical debris lying around. The words might seem to speak of mortality but ultimately Blackstar and these codas are a celebration of the vitality he had right up to the end. – @
❉ The Lazarus original cast recording, including the three new Bowie songs, is released as a 2-CD and 3-LP set on Friday 21 October.