We should be eternally thankful that David Bowie was around to write and oversee his own tribute musical. Five years down the line we might’ve had Ben Elton hacking out the story of Ziggy Starman tackling a labyrinth full of diamond dogs to reach the Land Of The Serious Moonlight, complete with a chorus line of high-kicking Major Toms.
Instead, Lazarus, a sensitive and accomplished reworking of Bowie songs acting as a sequel to his role in Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth, opened in New York last December with Bowie’s voice presciently present. “Look up here, I’m in heaven” begins the title track’s operatic glam overture on this cast recording, delivered in Dexter star Michael C Hall’s uncanny Bowie intonation, and Bowie’s touch is constantly evident in the imaginative treatments of his canon.
Only a few tracks come down with showtune-itis – ‘All The Young Dudes’ and ‘Changes’, which morphs from a breathy, jazz- flecked ballad to an over-emotive Liza Minnelli cabaret piece in the hands of Cristin Milioti. Otherwise, invention reigns.
‘This Is Not America’ becomes a haunting siren call, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ a minimalist frenzy of tech-noir skitterbeats. ‘“Heroes”’
and ‘Life On Mars’ are turned into languid piano delicacies, gorgeous but lacking much of the originals’ power.
It’s the three new Bowie tracks, the last songs he ever recorded, that give ‘Lazarus’ its titular sense of creative reincarnation, though. It’s impossible to separate them from the circumstances of their writing – oceanic Radiohead-ish ballad ‘No Plan’, for instance, sounds like an anthem of deathbed fatalism, Bowie’s warm and fragile voice facing a blank, empty future (“This is no place, but here I am”), while ‘Killing A Little Time’ finds him wailing, “I’ve got a handful of songs to sing, to sting your soul, to f**k you over”, over Nine Inch Nails tech-rock beats and murderous saxophones in his classic cockney arthouse quiver, simultaneously helpless and ferocious. Finally, the Ziggy-leaning ‘When I Met You’ is a discordant, fractured glam romance in which he declares to a lover, “When I met you I was the walking dead”, while a robo-Bowie chatters unsettlingly in the background. Further signs that, right to the end, Bowie was testing himself with new tones and textures, raging magnificently against the dying of the light.