David Bowie - Sue (or in a Season of Crime)

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2014-11-17

Where to start with this one? Well, Bowie’s back again, which somehow still feels massively special and exciting. And he’s wrong-footed us once more. Where 2013’s long-awaited comeback, ‘Where Are We Now?’, was anything but the storming return you might have anticipated, so this new single, taken from yet another soon-to-be-released best-of, is the complete opposite of the sort of water-treading filler most artists stick on compilations.

‘Sue (or in a Season of Crime)’ is, as you will no doubt already have heard, Bowie going jazz. At least that’s how it’s being trumpeted, which is a little misleading. For a start, jazz has been a recurring component in Bowie’s sound since he recruited Mike Garson to add a Weimar tinkle to 1973’s Aladdin Sane. Since then, Bowie has delved into the genre most notably on 1993’s Black Tie White Noise, 1995’s Outside, and 2003’s Reality.

In fact, what ‘Sue…’ most readily resembles for Bowie fans is a marriage of those latter two album’s most challenging numbers, ‘Small Plot of Land’ and ‘Bring Me the Disco King’. The song opens with a cool, sinister beat very similar to ‘Bring Me the Disco King’, while Bowie’s swooping, near-hysterical vocal recalls his doomy proclamations on the Outside track. Add in some snarling guitar feedback at the start, a la ‘Station to Station’, and this definitely isn’t as far from ‘classic’ Bowie as you might have been led to believe.

Perhaps that angle has stuck because this is Bowie’s first foray into the jazz world proper. While he might have conscripted Lester Bowie for Black Tie White Noise, submerging the legendary trumpeter’s playing in house and electronica sounds, here he has collaborated with New York’s highly-respected Maria Schneider Orchestra. The result is a monochrome film noir nightmare, a Mad Men-themed hallucination of prodding, parrying drums, murderous brass and deceptively funky bass, over which Bowie unfolds what sounds like a story of organised crime, betrayal and, finally, murder.  

It’s bloody challenging, among the most challenging music of Bowie’s career, which is saying something. If last year’s hugely successful The Next Day was, at least to an extent, Bowie riffing on his past sounds and personae, proving his can still shift with ease from glam riffs to synth-heavy art-rock, this is Bowie re-staking his right to do whatever the hell he wants, no matter how unexpected, unconventional or uncommercial. And he’ll stick it on his best-of, and he’ll release it as a single, thank you very much.

Of course, we don’t know if this is a clear signal of where Bowie intends to head musically or just a one-off. For all we know, he might bugger off for another decade after this. But ‘Sue…’ is, unequivocally, an artist following his muse, and balls to what anyone else thinks. Isn’t that always what Bowie’s greatest moments have been about? That’s why we love him, still. 

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