"NO PLAN" (EP)
David Bowie: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Donny McCaslin: Saxophone, Flute, Woodwinds
Ben Monder: Guitar
Jason Linder: Piano, Keyboards, Organ
Tim Lefebvre: Bass Guitar
Mark Guiliana: Drums, Percussion
All music and lyrics by David Bowie
Produced by David Bowie and Tony Visconti
Released January 8, 2017
It is still difficult for me to believe that he is truly gone and furthermore, that it has been one full year since his passing.
For whatever inexplicable reasons, the death of David Bowie, just two days after his 69th birthday in 2016, seemed to serve as a dark signal for the emotionally and politically turbulent year that was yet to fully emerge at that time, especially with all of the deaths from a plethora of creative artists and visionaries. Now that we all know that Bowie's final album "Blackstar" (released January 8, 2016), was indeed designed to serve as a farewell statement and gift to his fans and listeners, it has indeed made the album a somewhat difficult listening experience for me to return to throughout 2016, despite the immense artistry, and undeniably fearless creativity that made the album soar to sitting at the very tip-top of my favorite releases of the year.
When reports arrived that there were in fact three more songs recorded during the "Blackstar" sessions but left off of the actual album, I was certainly excited to hear them but also filled with a trepidaciousness with hearing this voice and vision again, really knowing that I would be hearing--at least in an artistic fashion--his final words. But still, of course, I needed to hear them.
As we also know, as David Bowie was nearing the end of his life, he was deeply within the process of creating a new theatrical work that would essentially play off of the "Blackstar" album to a degree. "Lazarus," a musical designed as a sequel to the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, as well as Director Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film adaptation of the same name in which Bowie starred as lonely, isolated extraterrestrial Thomas Newton, would feature a collection of Bowie's songs from his 40 year career including those three aforementioned additional "Blackstar" selections, therefore continuing to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, artistic expression and explicit confessional.
While I did indeed purchase the official "Lazarus" cast album (released October 21, 2016), which contains a second disc housing Bowie's original recordings of the three additional songs, I somehow could not find it within myself to sit down and listen just yet, as I guess I was just saddened at the thought of the story of David Bowie reaching its full conclusion--even though he had been deceased for most of the year by this point. And so, the "Lazarus" album sat in a pile of CDs upon my kitchen table unheard just because...well...I couldn't quite bear it.
On January 8th of this year, David Bowie would have reached the age of 70. And just as with "Blackstar," fans around the world were greeted with a gift in the form of the "No Plan" EP, the official release of the three bonus songs previously only available upon "Lazarus" and were also unavailable for download. For whatever reason, the arrival of this EP felt to me to exist as somewhat of a signal to not feel so sad as to not appreciate the art David Bowie clearly worked until the very end of his life trying to create and provide for all of us.
What a disservice it would be for me to place my sadness ahead of his work. So, with that, I pulled out the second disc of the "Lazarus" set and began to listen.
In addition to the track "Lazarus," which plays precisely as it does upon the "Blackstar" album, what has become the "No Plan" EP continues as follows:
1. "No Plan"-Essentially the EP's title track. Within the context of the "Lazarus" play and musical, the song carries a more traditionally sounding Broadway arrangement and features the vocal of a young woman, effectively and a gain blurring the lines brilliantly between expression and confession as the song could be viewed as existing as part of the overall narrative. Yet, with David Bowie's original version "No Plan" is a wrenching ballad, one that sounds as confessional as it is artistic. On further thought, I am actually quite not sure if I have ever heard Bowie present himself so nakedly before, especially when he was certainly existing at his most vulnerable and perhaps, fragile.
While the "Blackstar" finale "I Can't Give Everything Away" envisioned a sense of travel, the journey from life to infinity, "No Plan" is a song delivered from the imagined hereafter, a song of arrival but where?
There is no music here
I'm lost in streams of sound
Am I nowhere now?
Wherever I may go
Just where, just there
All of the things that are my life
My desire, my beliefs, my moods
Here is my place without a plan"
"No Plan" is stirring, sobering and certainly, more than a little halting as it is indeed the type of song--and so richly sung--that forces the listener to think about the very things that you may certainly not wish to think about. Yes, David Bowie's mortality is weaved directly into the song but for that matter, so is the mortality of every single person that listeners to this song for what will become of us once the inevitable happens.
Where do we go, if anywhere? What happens to all of the qualities and characteristics that make each and every one of us the individuals that we are once our bodies fail forever, and for that matter, where did they arrive from in the first place? Is there a soul to depart the shell of our bodies or is there absolutely nothing, a darkness that is endless or even something that we are unable to even conceive of because, we are all only human?
In under four minutes, David Bowie has taken us upon a journey through life, the universe and everything, so to peak. For me, it's not the easiest song to go through as it does send those chills and inserts a lump in my throat each time I hear it.
2. "Killing A Little Time"-If the full EP of "No Plan" could be viewed as sot of a musical version of the Kubler-Ross model, more commonly known as the five stages of grief, then this track most certainly sits deeply in the pocket of the "anger" stage, as the band feverishly commits to a more jazz fusion styled arrangement performed with striking velocity with David Bowie front and center, filled with spitting venom.
This rage in me
I've got a handful of songs to sing
To sting your soul
To fuck you over
This furious reign..."
Bowie opens the song with that passage, a declaration of his artistic raison d'etre as well as a gripping admission of the rapidly flowing time he has remaining to create and deliver, which then leads to the following darkly sardonic section...
"I'm falling, man
I'm choking, man
I'm fading, man
I'm the broken line
I'm falling, man
I'm choking, man
I'm fading, man
I'm killing a little time..."
"Killing A Little Time" affords Bowie to completely engage himself and the listener within another unusually confessional period as the song represents his Dylan Thomas moment, his "dying against the light" as he is obviously and ferociously raging against that eternal "good night." And while the overall effect is viscerally thrilling, it again forces all of us to think of our own impending futures and endings uncomfortably.
3. "When I Met You"-The final selection upon the EP is considerably more inscrutable, leaving us with more questions than answers and I do have the strongest feeling that this is perhaps how Bowie himself may have wanted it for us, especially arriving after two selections that feel to be so open veined.
The pulsing, brooding yet more straightforward rock and roll sounding track has Bowie addressing the unidentified "You" of the title.
"You knew just everything
But nothing at all
Now the moon is dark
Feels like pain again
You could feel my breath
You opened my eyes
For I could not see
When I met you
When I met you (You're feeling again)
I could not speak (You're drowning in pain)
You opened my mouth (You're walking in mist)
You opened my heart (You're living again)
My spirit rose (She tore you down)
The marks and stains (Happens all the time)
Could not exist (You were afraid)
When I met you
Now it's all the same (It's all the same)
It's all the same (It's all the same)
The sun is gone (The sun is gone)
It's all the same..."
So...with that, who is "You"? Could it be Bowie addressing himself, his wife Iman, whom or whatever he perceived God or some sort of supreme entity to be as he was apparently a practicing Buddhist? There is no way to know and yet that ambiguity serves to not derail the song itself but to effectively close the chapter on the musical and artistic life of David Bowie with that elegant and essential levels of mystery that keeps us returning, reviewing, re-living, e-interpreting and re-experiencing the immense legacy he has left behind for us.
"No Plan," the EP of the final recordings of David Bowie, serve as a more than effective footnote to the "Blackstar" experience, as well as Bowie's entire musical odyssey. These are three concise yet broadly conceptual and reaching songs that unveil a quality of existential poignancy that ultimately can assist all of us fans still dealing with Bowie's final transition. For through his entire career, David Bowie taught all of us how to fully live our lives by embracing the strange around and within ourselves, challenging and provoking us to strengthen and elongate our own perceptions to how life can be lived and therefore achieved.
With "No Plan," David Bowie continued that very same work valiantly while also, quite possibly showing and teaching us the ways we can face death and dying. Certainly not an easy feat and even moreso, certainly not the easiest of listens. But honestly, when did David Bowie ever take the easy route?
And aren't we all the better for him having led the way.