Never has there been an artist who appraised the spectre of their own death and decided to turn it into one of the most impactful and grandiose artistic statements of their time. With Bowie’s final album Blackstar, he provided us with more than just a glimpse into the psyche of a man nearing death, he embraced it wholeheartedly and documented his final days, while, as always, making exceptional music. Bowie’s swansong incorporated experimental jazz and industrial elements alongside its core rock instrumentation, with his citation of Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips as influences coming through via these stylistic changes and the varied and ambitious song structures.
The scale of the project, with the album and associated Lazarus musical in which all 4 songs here are present, means Blackstar casts a long shadow over this EP (and over all music released in 2016) yet these songs are more than merely offcuts and each resembles some of Bowie’s most evocative and challenging music in a career full of just that. Opener ‘Lazarus’ was also released as the second single from Blackstar, and here remains one of the best songs of the decade. It’s an unbelievably powerful and affecting lament of a man who knows he has little time left but still possesses the drive to make unparalleled music. It is the best song here, but it would be the best song on almost any album released this past year.
What follows, while not quite reaching the perfection of ‘Lazarus’, is still peerless work. The title track ‘No Plan’ is an achingly sad and poignant ballad; with Bowie’s voice sounding more weathered and tired than ever, he sings about being “lost to streams of sound” and being in “no place, but here I am.” This self-assessment of both his canonical artistic place as well as his mortality are complemented by the mournful horns and swirling synths present in the instrumental that slowly shifts around him.
The variety displayed within the tracklist is highlighted by ‘Killing a Little Time;’ with its aggressive, driving guitar riff complimented by delicate, twinkling pianos bubbling underneath and an imposing s horn section. Bowie embodies raging against the dying of the light, spitting out tortured lyrics of fallen men and “fucking you over” like a man possessed. Final track ‘When I Met You’ is a more mid-tempo offering with an industrial, garage rock quality, and is probably the only tune here not quite strong enough to stand alongside its bigger brother, yet the emotive, confessional lyrics and the chorus’ vocal harmonies still provide it with enough emotional heft to make a grown man cry.
But this EP was clearly never intended to stand alongside Blackstar; instead it is intended to act as a layered and multifaceted coda to Bowie’s final LP and to one of the greatest music artists that has ever lived. While only a minimal collection of b-sides, No Plan remains a testament to the sheer bravery of a man who wrote beautiful and groundbreaking songs that both confront death and turn it into art, something only a true immortal could achieve.