Help, I Can't Get Watchmen's Hauntingly Perfect 'Life on Mars?' Cover Out of My Head

By James Whitbrook on at

Unlike some people on Watchmen, I’m not even sure a hammer to the head might help at this point.

There were a lot of incredible, audacious goings-on in the latest Watchmen, an episode of television that managed to make me bolt up in surprise multiple times despite being wrapped up toasty warm in several layers of blankets attempting to survive the winter. But for all its bold twists, big reveals, and uncovered secrets, the biggest surprise came as the episode ended. Not just for its revelation of the true whereabouts of Doctor Manhattan, or how that reveal is, uh, let’s just say cracked open, though – but rather what plays over it.

As the episode builds to its grand climax and the credits roll, Watchmen’s soundscape is overtaken by a heady, piano-forward, and just stunningly beautiful instrumental cover of David Bowie’s legendary “Life on Mars?”

Since the episode aired last Sunday (well, technically very early Monday morning, my time), I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it, and how much it completely bowled me over in the moment. It’s not helped that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, thankfully, officially uploaded a clean official version of the piece to Nine Inch Nails’ YouTube channel in the past few days, so I could have it on loop.

t’s just so...good? It’s so good. I mean, of course it is, it’s David bloody Bowie. It’s “Life on Mars?”, one of the all-time greats in a body of work that is primarily all-time greats, and one that contextually and lyrically works incredibly well, of course, for the story of Jon Osterman. But the cover itself is genuinely remarkable beyond that.

It’s both paradoxically simple and yet builds to something intensely grand, punctuated by that steady baseline in the background that feels reminiscent of another of the series’ best musical pieces, the fabulously titled “NUN WITH A MOTHERF*&*ING GUN.” The hazy dissonance that muffles the sharper tones of the piano as it lingers and intensifies – as synths, guitars, and other instruments slowly come into the composition, adding layers of sound and distortion on top of what was at first clear, stark piano. Like memories flooding back into something that was once locked away.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised – Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack for Watchmen has consistently remained one of its most brilliant assets. Week after week, from clever cover work like this to heartpoundingly catchy original pieces that stand shoulder to shoulder with the combined powers of compelling storytelling, Regina King and Jean Smart, and even That Lube Man to vie for the position of Best Thing About Watchmen in what has managed to rapidly become one of the best shows of the year.

But the fact I still am probably goes to show what an impressive feat Watchmen has revealed itself to be. What’s another happy surprise in a series that’s been full of them?