David Bowie’s Lazarus Cast Album was released to little fanfare last October.
Since it was recorded in January, a day or two after Bowie died, most of the material on the album doesn’t feature him at all. The Lazarus album is the soundtrack of a musical Bowie co-wrote – a sequel to the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell To Earth. Astute Bowie fans will know that he starred in the film adaptation.
(I happen to have a copy of The Man Who Fell to Earth on my right at this very moment. It is a strange book, a science-fiction work typical of the 60s, filled with the exploration of the ramifications of new technology and of contact with alien life, etc etc. Tevis’ book Mockingbird is also quite good, if slightly too Christian for some. An underappreciated author.)
The Lazarus album is performed by the actors of Lazarus, obviously – and while they’re mostly unfamiliar names to me, I can admit that Michael C. Hall does an excellent late Bowie impression. I say ‘late Bowie’ because I want to draw the distinction in his singing between, say, ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Sound and Vision’. I don’t recall exactly when it happened, but at some point Bowie dropped the slightly childish, innocent, and somewhat reedy vocal style in favour of the more familiar deep cadence (although it retained the slight famous tremble so maligned in hundreds of impersonations).
There’s not much new content on Lazarus. It’s filled with new arrangements of old hits, some done in surprising styles (if you’d tried to tell me Changes could be written as a bizarre, peppy, scenery-munching mid-2000s ballad, I would have been extremely sceptical to say the least.) Changes isn’t as good as the original. Neither is The Man Who Sold the World, re-worked into an electronic, almost danceable piece, buzzing with new tension, but lacking the Eastern sensibility of the original work. It does have wooden, archaic-sounding percussion, but the synthesiser occasionally makes it sound like a soundtrack for a nature documentary.
Most of the songs I wasn’t familiar with at first, because they were pulled off The Next Day, an album I’ve only listened to once. They’re alright. It’s No Game is about as good as it was on Scary Monsters, but only because there’s no big difference aside from a key change. Life on Mars is now the big Disney musical number it was conceived as – and it’s missing something. Sophia Anne Caruso (whoever that is) is an impressive singer, but she’s missing the whimsy of the original. And without Wakeman, the piano part doesn’t even compare.
Actually, I’d like to interrupt this discussion to talk about Life on Mars specifically for a second. Isn’t the whole point that there’s a contrast, in both the style and content of the lyrics? The drama of the girl who, abandoned by family and friends, takes refuge in entertainment and finds that it dissatisfies her sensibilities (being too familiar), contrasts against the nonsense of the chorus and the second verse. This creates a dramatic, sweeping, Hollywood-style piece which isn’t really about the drama of one particular person – or about anything at all. It’s a purposeless, abstract work that satirises itself with its own nonsense lyricism. I’ve heard the piece described as a ‘cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting’, ostensibly by the BBC. Unfortunately, Caruso’s performance is all Broadway, no Dali. The message is lost, because the presentation is changed.
The new content on Lazarus impressed me. There are three new songs on this album, recorded alongside Blackstar. There are also two versions of each new track, one recorded by Bowie, and one by the performers. Caruso, who so understated the silliness of the sailors in Life on Mars, fits much better in No Plan. I haven’t listened to the lyrics too deeply, because when you’re a fan of 70s prog rock you learn very quickly not to do that most of the time, but it seems to be a kind of soul-searching rant. A slow, crescendo-centric piece. Both her and Bowie’s versions sound, appropriately, as though they’re lost in space.
Killing a Little Time is a punkish, angry rocker. Bowie snarls – or croons – it’s hard to decide – his lyrics as though he’s condemning his worst enemy, and the only difference I can discern between him and Hall is that Hall’s voice is a little clearer and steadier. It comes down to personal preference.
This is kind of like comparing versions of old jazz standards, isn’t it?
Anyway, the final new contribution, When I Met You, was undoubtedly my favourite. The version done by Hall and Krystina Alabado is undoubtedly better – sorry Bowie – only because this song relies so much on vocal contrast. The chorus is a series of battling refrains between both vocalists, which resolves as they both sing the lines ‘it’s all the same, it’s all the same/the sun is gone, and it’s all the same.’
Now, I enjoy it when an art form makes sense. I like to see pieces that could only work within their singular medium as a result of their construction – for example, Dark Souls only works as a video game, because the only way to deliver the degree of satisfaction in exploration and overcoming challenge is with the layer of interactivity provided by a video game. Similarly, When I Met You only works as a duet. We’re being shown that ‘it’s all the same’ not just through the lyrics, but by the fact that both vocalists are doing the same thing. It would have been fine as a solo Bowie work, but the use of two vocalists really tells me that Bowie understood what he was doing when he arranged it. This is a small and simple feature, but adds a layer of depth which can only be exploited with sound. I’m also a sucker for the evoking of the male/female dichotomy, even if it’s only a minor thing. Great counterpoint. A standout track.
While I’m on the subject of using vocal style and different singers to make a point, let’s look at the new version of Heroes. Now, the version of Heroes on this album isn’t particularly great. It’s stolid and boring compared to the original (and there’s no Fripp). But Bowie did something quite clever – not genius or anything, but clever – with the second verse. We know the lyrics:
“You…you can be mean,
And I…I’ll drink all the time…”
Sung by one person, it’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek admission that everyone has their own issues, and we have to deal with one another’s problems. Combined with the rest of the lyrics, we know that the narrator and the second character don’t seem to mind; they can be heroes despite being mean and drinking, if only for one day. And that’s all well and good. But the new version is much slower, much sadder – I imagine it’s probably performed ironically in the play’s context – and Caruso sings the first line:
“You…you can be mean.”
And Hall sings the second:
“And I…I’ll drink all the time.”
I rewrote them both again because I want you to understand the effect separating these lines has, and how without actually changing the words, using only the medium of the performer and the style of the performance, Bowie has recontextualised one of his most famous songs. It’s gone from a gung-ho, rebellious refrain to a tragic piece with overtly abusive themes. This is an extraordinary change.
The album is okay. Don’t buy it until it’s a bit cheaper. The new songs are nice. More than that, however –
This is the power of presentation, gang. It’s more important than message – so much more important. We can see it in politics – think about what happened to Mitt Romney in 2012, for example – and we can see it in art. Breitbart was right, politics is downstream from culture, in more than one sense. It is influenced by culture on the surface, but they also share the characteristic of presentation easily being able to take precedence over substance. Look at Life on Mars and Heroes, and think about how ‘the medium is the message.’