Lazarus Cast Album Includes David Bowie’s Final Songs

David Bowie Play

Photo: By Arthur from Westchester County north of NYC, USA, at Arthur@NYCArthur.com (Cropped from the original, David Bowie) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the time leading up to his unexpected death last January, David Bowie was working closely with an Irish playwright, Enda Walsh, to craft a stage play based on the 1963 novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth.’ As many fans of the Thin White Duke will surely know, the science fiction novel heavily inspired Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ era and his subsequent songwriting. On October 21, the cast album was released for the play.

That record, which is available in most formats now, includes three tracks on its second CD that are important above all the rest: the final recordings Bowie left on the cutting room floor during his ‘Blackstar’ sessions. Those recordings are only available if you purchase the ‘Lazarus’ cast album in its entirety. Thus, how do the nineteen tracks on the endeavor stack up? (We’ll explore Bowie’s unreleased songs second.)

Cast albums are typically sequenced to correspond with the way the play is actually performed. ‘Lazarus’ is no different. It very much follows the set-list and story of the stage performance. This does, however, create a disconnect for audio listeners from the opening notes of the album, a short selection of Ricky Nelson’s 1961 hit ‘Hello Mary Lou.’

Now, one would assume that the play opens Nelson’s track because it sets some sort of context for the characters on stage. On the album, that context is absent, so this brief introduction, while lovely, is empty of purpose. It is worth noting that ‘Hello Mary Lou’ is a great tune, however, and Nelson was an excellent performer who fell by the wayside later in his career because his act was very safe and clean. The edginess of rock and roll pushed him out of the limelight.

 

Michael C. Hall, an actor many may know as Dexter Morgan from the Showtime series ‘Dexter,’ plays the lead in ‘Lazarus.’ Hence, he performs a large selection of the songs on the cast record. The titular song of the show is the first track following ‘Hello Mary Lou,’ and it was a single Bowie originally released on ‘Blackstar’ earlier this year. Hall performs it to a peculiar degree of success.

During ‘Lazarus,’ and this holds true for most of Hall’s contributions on the album, his performance feels inherently sterile. ‘Lazarus’ is an incredibly emotional song, and Bowie did his writing perfect justice with his poignant delivery. Hall, while conventionally a talented a vocalist, doesn’t capture that passion and intensity in any way.

‘It’s No Game’ follows, a ‘Scary Monsters’ track that Hall lets loose a bit more on, but still falls far short of having any sort of meaningful impact on the listener. As a result, the first compelling entry on ‘Lazarus’ is ‘This Is Not America,’ sung by the fifteen year old Sophia Anne Caruso. She performs the Bowie deep cut in an absolutely stunning fashion, and it also sets up the young actress to be the breakout star of this album and play. (Charlie Pollack performs ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ afterward, a completely forgettable interpretation.)

‘No Plan,’ the next tune helmed by Caruso, is also one of the tracks that Bowie left on the cutting room floor. The arrangement that complements Caruso embraces a much higher level of brevity in contrast to Bowie’s cut, which works splendidly for her. Michael Esper is then introduced as the fourth voice on the album, performing ‘Love Is Lost,’ a song from ‘The Next Day,’ Bowie’s second to last album.

Esper’s performance is rather excellent, and he offers a male performance on the album that doesn’t feel as clean cut as Hall’s. The inclusion of tracks like ‘Love Is Lost’ is spectacular as well. It shows that Bowie was heavily involved in the creative process. If Bowie wasn’t involved in creating this, tracks off ‘The Next Day’ and ‘Blackstar’ would have surely been omitted for more well-known hits. The deep cuts and hidden gems tend to be some of the finest performances on the record, as is the case with ‘Love Is Lost.’

Like each of these songs, ‘Changes’ is difficult to cover. It’s important to remember how high the bar is set for these
performers. That song in particular is so iconic, though, that interpretations are sure to be subject to heavy scrutiny. Cristin Milioti performs a very jazzy interpretation of the song, and it’s arguably the best performance on ‘Lazarus.’ It’s gorgeous, and Milioti absolutely nails ‘Changes’ in every facet.

More deep cuts follow ‘Changes,’ such as a Hall-lead ‘Where Are We Now?’ and a cast collaborative effort on ‘Absolute Beginners,’ a song Bowie wrote for a 1986 film of the same title. The latter is notably excellent, and women like Caruso and Milioti steal the show on the recording. Esper and Hall do, however, have their best performances immediately after.

‘Dirty Boys,’ another ‘The Next Day’ tune, is performed by Esper to wonderful success. Esper breaks out of his comfort zone and gets aggressive in his vocal delivery. ‘Killing A Little Time,’ the Hall-performed track that follows, is Hall’s best effort on the album as well. Hall actually performs the song in the jazz fusion style Bowie wrote it in during the ‘Blackstar’ sessions. It’s a complicated performance, and he handles it very well.

‘Life On Mars?’ is Caruso’s best performance, a song that was touted out over a month ago as the first single on the album. It’s a faithful adaption, and it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful. Again, Caruso defines herself as the most valuable talent on this album. She holds her own powerfully against people twice and thrice her age.

‘All The Young Dudes’ is a close second to ‘Changes’ in regard to the album’s finest performance. All of the cast band together for this tune and it’s absolutely explosive. At this point, it is most certainly important to recognize the studio band as well. Each of these songs are terrifically performed, even if their vocalists occasionally fall flat.

After a short ‘Sound And Vision’ sample, which is likely given context on stage, Milioti seems to return, but instead credited under the name ‘Cristin Militia.’ She offers a fantastic performance of ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car,’ and then Hall returns for a surprisingly solid execution of ‘Valentine’s Day.’

The final cast recordings are two duets featuring Hall. One of them, ‘When I Met You,’ is an uneventful affair in contrast to its original counterpart. ‘Heroes,’ however, on which Hall is joined by Caruso, is a gorgeous performance. Unlike the vast majority of the album, the two performers deviate from a faithful interpretation to offer a much more melancholy, minor-keyed approach. The creative license pays off in full.

The second CD, as aforementioned, does include the recordings Bowie worked on during the ‘Blackstar’ sessions that weren’t ever released. As we can now see, they’re clearly guide recordings for the cast members of ‘Lazarus,’ since all three songs are featured on the cast album as well. Unsurprisingly, Bowie outshines the cast on each of them.

The brooding ‘No Plan’ is absolutely haunting. It embraces the jazz fusion styling of ‘Blackstar’ in a remarkable way, and Bowie’s performance is highlighted so perfectly by soft synthesizers, soft percussion, and saxophone. ‘Killing A Little Time,’ though, approaches its soundscape in a far more aggressive way. Bowie combines cascading brass sections with erratic percussion and thick, distorted guitar riffing.‘When I Met You’ is probably the most digestible of the three tracks for any listeners who never found themselves understanding or appreciating Bowie’s jazz fusion efforts. It has a more traditional song structure, and Bowie’s undying youth feels uniquely present on ‘When I Met You.’ “When I met you, I could not speak. You opened my mouth. You opened my heart,” he croons during the chorus build.

The David Bowie recordings can only be obtained through full purchase of this cast album. They aren’t even being streamed. Bundling the three recordings together as a separate purchase would have been much more respectful to Bowie’s fans and his memory. Those three recordings are so excellent, though, that they justify the album purchase regardless of the content of the cast recordings.

Those cast recordings do have their moments. ‘Changes,’ ‘Heroes,’ ‘All The Young Dudes,’ and ‘Life On Mars?’ are a few of the more notably fantastic entries in the collection. Michael C. Hall has the most time in the spotlight, but does the least with it. People like Cristin Milioti, however, dominate the stage with powerful, memorable performances.

All of this makes ‘Lazarus’ a must-purchase for Bowie fans. Ignore the forgettable interpretations. The rest of the package makes up for their uncreative presentations with several worthwhile gems, and Bowie’s last three songs as a must-listen.

 

Lazarus is currently at the Kings Cross Theatre in London.

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