January 10th 2017 marked the first anniversary of the death of David Bowie, the first birthday of the day where Western Pop Culture’s relationship with death and eulogy was turned on its head. Of course, as we were quickly informed, that fateful day was by no means Bowie’s date of departure from the music industry. Oh no, Bowie was too much of a pioneer to let death start getting in the way. Indeed, what makes No Plan so special is that it cements Bowie’s continued, posthumous presence. In spite of his death, he remains a major player within the business, conjuring up the same excited talk as any living artist would when they release new content. Even in death, his mercurial grip remains.
Of course, the newness of the songs on this EP are questionable, seeing as to how they were released on the Lazarus cast edition several moths ago. Nonetheless, these are Bowie’s originals, the arrangements he wanted to sing through, and, as such, we should treat them as the originals. Forget the prior releases, this is what we really came for.
What’s more, perhaps owing to the theme of mortality which surrounded Blackstar, is that it would not be much of a stretch to perhaps suggest that each of these tracks represents a different destination for the post-mortem Bowie, with each song playing the part of a musical postcard, a series of letters from the great beyond.
Even in death, his mercurial grip remains
If we roll with this premise, then it is perhaps fitting that Lazarus serves as the song to kick off proceedings. Cut straight from Blackstar, nothing has changed, the song remains the same as before. Still, this is not to detract from the song itself, since it remains as brilliant and hauntingly ethereal as it did during our previous January. Bowie’s triumphantly impassioned self-eulogy maintains its position among Bowie’s finest. Nonetheless, this is the third time a review of mine has featured Lazarus, and I feel that there is little else I can say at this point about it. It remains a brilliant song, a memento from the heavens, a revolutionary exercise in performance.
However, it is after Lazarus where we meet the real focal point of the EP, the eponymous title track itself: ‘No Plan’. Cocooned in sombre instrumentation, latched onto simple melodies and rhythm, Bowie laments what can only be described as a purgatorial landscape, a world where there is nothing to speak of. “Nothing to regret/this is no place, but here I am” he weeps, mourning how forsaken a world without a world must be. It is perhaps why it is by far the EP’s highlight, its most gripping offering, and perhaps, somewhat fittingly, Bowie’s final masterpiece.
The fragility of his voice seems to magnify his presence on the track, as does the subject matter, whose dictatorial reminders that there is “No Plan” contrast wildly with the Bowie of the past. It’s one of the few songs in his catalogue where we accept the hopelessness of the situation, the, if not spontaneity, recurrently spontaneous suppression of the new. Before this, each improvised measure on his songs felt calculated, they felt as if they belonged to the piece, and whilst you knew so much of it was improvised, you did not feel that way. The gratuitous irony of ‘No Plan’ is that, in spite of the tight, ordered nature of the song, it feels upsettingly purposeless. We know that this has all been composed before, but it doesn’t feel that way. In essence, Bowie closes out with the impossible, and has made us cry about nothing.
BOWIE HAS MADE US CRY ABOUT NOTHING
‘Killing a Little Time’, meanwhile, is a completely different beast. A disturbed, distortion-soaked guitar riff lures us in, as frantic, polyrhythmic drumming ensnares us, pounding away at our senses as saxophones bellow, shriek and encircle their own melodies. Bowie’s voice, meanwhile, concurs with the instrumentation, his dulcet tones filled with subtle, controlled hints of anger and pain. “I’m choking man, I’m fading man, I’m broken life” he croons in the chorus, “just killing a little time”. The track is noisy, uncomfortable, completely madcap, and stitched together with orchestral and jazz fabric. By the end, we’re made witness to Bowie at his most disturbing, his most hellish, and few honours exist above that.
Closing off proceedings is the acoustic-driven ‘When I Met You’ . Straight from the offset, we can tell what it is. It’s a goodbye, but it’s a goodbye which has already been given a hundred times over, a goodbye to somebody who is already gone completely. Its discombobulating multi-tracked vocals, a mix of poetry with arhythmic rants, lean heavily on the topic of memory, recollection, and repeat. The song disappears almost as soon as it begins, it fleets and fidgets, refusing to stay still. A representation of one’s memories of somebody, the last true vestige of a person after their death, perhaps? Perhaps, but don’t expect an answer.
As for where he really is, that’s for you to make your mind up on. Pick an option, any option. Regardless of which one, you needn’t ask him what it’s like there, because he’s already prepared for us an answer. Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell; he could be in any of them, any, except, maybe, for where you think you know he is.
So farewell, David Bowie. Thank you for one last mystery, and thank you for stealing us some more time with you, even if it was just for one day.