From the very first listen, the title song from “Lazarus” [which was the only of the four new songs of that production on this album] made a large impact. The song’s descending hook [complete with a contrapuntal, vertiginous ascending pick scrape] gave the song a portentous air that said “all of my cards are on the table.” That the first lyric was “look up here, I’m in heaven,” simply made it of a piece with what we had already heard on this journey. McCaslin’s buttery noir sax was moody and dissolute and the anchor for this dour number. Immediately, the song became a calling card for the album. The song became the last single released by Bowie during his life on December 17th.
There are a lot of methodologies and often arcane tools [see: William S. Burroughs, Brian Eno] that Bowie had used throughout his career to put his art across, often at the point of losing immediacy [see: “1. Outside”], but this song was almost completely free from guile and distancing techniques. What makes the song so memorable, to the point where I could sing along on the 5th or 6th playing of it, was that everything it is comprised of is completely straightforward. The only calling card on this number was sheer craftsmanship and clarity of message. No shortcuts were taken and no quarter was given.
The album next held a re-recording of the single “Sue [Or in A Season of Crime]” that had appeared in late 2014. I still have not heard the original version but the arrangement on “★” is notable for its overdriven rhythm bed where drummer Mark Guiliana was playing acoustic drum + bass patterns like only a jazz man could. The liner notes reveal cheekily that Bowie had given credit on this track to not only Maria Schneider, who wrote the music earlier, but also to a drum+bass act called [wait for it…] Plastic Soul, whose 1997 12″ “Brand New Heavy” was exactly the sort of thing that Bowie was doing the same year with his “Earthling” album. So I take it that the 2014 version of the song sounds nothing like this?
In keeping with this template, there were stabs of bass synth cutting into the song while Guiliana kept the momentum going at a breakneck pace, casting off patterns and fills like usually only programming achieves. Given that the song was a murder ballad, it does a handy trick at mirroring the frenzied state of mind of someone who has just killed his lover for cuckolding him. This was all well and good as grist for Bowie’s creative mill, but even on a song where death was the crux of the lyrics, the words here suggest that the titular subject of the song was perhaps terminally ill, for in spite of the half-hearted exhortations that “the clinic called, the x-ray’s fine,” Sue’s biggest problem was her lover’s jealousy. It had killed her more thoroughly than any disease that may have had a grip on her. The distorted guitar/synth “screams” as Bowie calmly describes pushing her down beneath the weeds were unsettling enough, but the coda of the track after Bowie laments Sue’s duplicity leave the song shaking apart in the aftermath of his actions and their results; leaving a hot, overdriven metallic hum that ends coldly and suddenly.
Next: …Nadsat Returns