No-one was expecting this, right? That's not exactly true; right when this came out two very nice catalog reissue websites each offered to post it when I finished it. Unfortunately, I was nearly done when I had to abandon the review.
Well, as the title says, it was 311 days ago when "Nothing Has Changed" was released. The sites passed when I finally finished it, and I can hardly blame them. I think the extra time helped the thoughts I was having then crystalized over time, so that's a bonus.
On the other hand, this may be the thing that stops readers from reading the site, so if I alienate any of you, my apologies in advance. I am nothing if not honest and opinionated.
There's something cosmic (or at least astrological) in publishing a review of a 3-disc Bowie comp that runs backwards chronologically almost a year late and exactly 26 years to the day Sound + Vision was originally released - a 3 disc set that is programmed forward.
Before I wade in, three things; 1) I have some Bowie fatigue (I know this seems impossible to many of you, but when it comes to RCA-era tracks I heard them SO many times working on the Rykodisc releases that I did burn out on them, if only temporarily) 2) after not spending much time with it, I eagerly looked forward to reassessing his post-“Let’s Dance” oeuvre in the context of this compilation, and finally 3) as you may know already if you read this site, I am aggravated when people gripe how “Sound + Vision” box (or at least the iteration I put together) is not the greatest hits they expected, or something entirely different than Bowie & I intended – and I’m more than happy to explain on this site - in potentially agonizing detail, I’m afraid – how we got to that track list and why.
But here’s a set that is clearly stated as “The Very Best Of David Bowie” yet is packed with odds & ends edits and mixes of songs we may know better in other versions. This seems like the very definition of a contradiction. A “Best Of” should glorify or at least illuminate its subject. Are we to believe the unedited and un-remixed versions of these tracks are LESS than the BEST? I am open to accepting tracks can be improved by post-origination tampering, but only a few here meet that criteria.
I suppose the alternate versions that are the majority rather than the minority here are great for Bowie trainspotters who’ve been asking for CD releases of these edits for years (HAVE THEY REALLY?!!?). Because of these “rarities” the set services the rabid fanbase, but not necessarily the songs; these versions do allow obsessive completists to check them off lists, and who else is left buying physical product these days anyway?
But this called “The Very Best Of David Bowie” so one assumes the compiler has grander goals than stacking a bunch of versions in one place. On the other hand, calling anything “The Very Best Of David Bowie” sets both a large expectation and an impossible goal. Bowie has meant so much to so many that any fixed “Best Of” track listing is a deliberate baiting of his fans at worst, or a flame-thread-starter at worst.
You’ll notice that none of the Ryko releases were titled “Best Of” – we did three comps, the “Sound + Vision” box, “Changesbowie” and “The Singles” – the last under pressure. We also rejected compilation ideas from Bowie’s camp; I’ll talk more about that later.
So what is the intent behind this set? Is it really a “Very Best”? I have a theory (and it is only a theory).
I’m reviewing the 3 disc version - it seemed best to go big when assessing a huge body of work. The two and one disc versions are far less interesting and all feature material culled from the 3 disc version, with no additional tracks. Surely distilling fifty years of music to a measly three CDs would yield nothing but classics? If only.
Like Prince, Bowie’s peaks were so fabulous and exciting (and OF THEIR MOMENTS) that he maintains a loyal fan base even after the new work has been spotty. Yet he’s so important and talented, we come back time and again, sifting through the latest work for the gems.
It doesn’t hurt that Bowie’s a fascinating, intelligent, constantly evolving (and now reclusive) artist who knows how to manipulate and excite the media and his fans. As the press for with “The Last Day” proved, critics are ready to rant and rave over any new work with even the slightest hint of the artist at his peak, colored as it may be by rose-colored hope when the dame grants us a new opportunity to consume his product.
One hopes that this was assembled with an eye to celebrate Bowie’s FIFTY years of recording, but, as frequently seems the case these days, it may be just another repackaging designed to feed the bond he famously floated, which may have taken a hit in recent years due to the faltering music business.
Yes, that sounds extremely cynical, but the proof is in the ones and zeroes. It’s difficult to argue that in the larger sense Bowie’s best songwriting days aren’t behind him. Furthermore, his voice (or is it his delivery?) has dropped to a reedy echo of it’s former self – an often basso mumble/whispers that rarely captures the spark of crackling energy that informed his limited, but expressive, range of old.
This is precisely why it’s admirably daring to release a compilation that works chronologically backward (the two disc version is chronological and the single ping-pongs all over the place). It’s as if Bowie is defying us to undermine his newer work by putting it right up front. I think this risks rattling newer fans, too – there are plenty of kids into Bowie, but few, if any, are rating “Hours” or “Heathen” as their favorite Bowie album, so to start with later tracks is ballsy as fuck.
With the art of the compilation almost completely undermined by the ease with which anyone can create their own playlist, I listen to “Nothing Has Changed” searching for the point it’s compiler intended to make, what they hoped to illuminate about the artist through this selection and sequence.
A wise man once noted that how you navigate through something is intrinsic to your understanding of it – for instance, if you watch the infamous 1991 video of the Rodney King beating backwards it looks like the cops are helping King onto his feet and sending him on his way. This kind of perverse time-bending seems like something Bowie would enjoy tinkering with.
The set leads off with “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” a brand new track with Bowie working his Anthony Newley roots, melding jazzy 60’s brass flourishes to drum & bass rhythms. The 60’s retro noir vibe is driven home in the track’s video, and perhaps that’s the pojnt - opening the set with this track is an attempt to tie together the earliest material here with Bowie’s present.
As the only truly new music here, it’s a worm on the hook for fans who already have the rest of this stuff in myriad formats.
As a song, it’s dubious, more of the meandering chorusless stuff that I find too frequently infests Bowie’s recent work; safe from a critical standpoint in that it defies conventional assessment, but at 7 minutes, it’s long outworn its welcome in my house at the halfway mark (there is a shorter radio edit which will no doubt appear on a future compilation under the pretense of being a “rarity”).
By contrast “Where Are We Now” the lead track from 2013’s “The Next Day” plays to David’s strengths of the last 20 years. Haunting, simple, impeccably arranged and sung in a voice that perfectly suits the subject matter, it made me over-ly optimistic about the album it preceded.
“Love Is Lost”, which, in its original incarnation, sounds like a “Tonight” outtake, is represented here with the much-improved James Murphy / DFA remix, an excellent choice, although here we get the first of many self-references to earlier (arguably better) material, with a sample from “Ashes To Ashes”. This “early years” theme recurs in many of the later tracks, which again, raises questions about motive – is Bowie trying to re-frame his history again?
The last track from Next Day is the album’s “rocker” (if this is a rocker, “Blue Jean” is “Blitzkrieg Bop”), “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” which, by contrast to an actual “rocking” Bowie track, serves to illustrate through it’s turgid “doo-doo-doo-do” backing vocal that restraint is a constant in any contemporary Bowie recording, not always to the benefit of the finished product.
“Reality”, despite the buzz around its release is just another too-uptight Bowie album and the tracks here don’t come to its defense, although these are all edits, so be thankful for merciful brevity. I would’ve included his cover of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s “Love Missile F-1 11” from that period.
Interestingly a spirited re-recording of one of his early tracks “Let Me Sleep Beside You” shows signs of life but is let down by his vocal. “Shadow Man” another outtake from his early days, captured here in a re-record from 2000’s lost “Toy” album loses the energy of the original and falls apart in a halting version. Best left alone. On the plus side, “Your Turn To Drive” epitomizes the kind of material best-suited for Bowie these days. Its lackadaisical pacing and dreamy subtext works great with his voice and, despite meandering for so long it overstays its welcome, is the best of the “Toy” material.
Then Maurice De Vries shows up and all of a sudden, this listener perks up! His “Seven” remix is quite good, and leaves me wondering if the mixer excavated some of the magic from the track’s far superior demo version (from the “Hours” Collector’s Edition). In my view “Hours” was the last record that benefitted from Bowie’s full range of vocal quirks, and this track in particular, is better for it. “Survive” gains some much needed gravitas from the same mixer.
These are all co-writes with Tin Machine conspirator Reeves Gabrels, who I never felt added much of value to the Bowie Ouevre outside of “Earthling”, which seems to have had its own momentum and probably would’ve been as good without Mr Gabrels on board. I have never understood the appeal of the snoozy “Thursdays Child”, but it was a top 20 hit in the UK, so I suppose it earned a place here.
Considering that “Earthling” is widely acclaimed as Bowie’s best album of the 90’s, it’s a bit of a surprise that only the two most obvious tracks are found here, both edits. From the adventurous “Outside” (I have SOOOOO many stories about this record) we get the widely available PSB remix which features Neil Tennant singing lines from “Space Oddity” over the track, reinforcing the underlying theme of referencing earlier days. This is also the “easy to digest” track from the otherwise challenging album.
Disc Two is the mixed bag you’d expect it to be, covering the years 1993-1976 – in other words, nearly 15 years of output – and out of 20 tracks only 8 of them are post-1984, leaving12 from the “Station To Station” through “Tonight” period of 8 years.
Interestingly, no “Tin Machine” here – and a jolt of “Under The God” would be most appreciated as we wade into what I consider a very dull patch.
Plenty of non-lp tracks abound, but these can hardly be considered rarities (“Under Pressure”, “Dancing in The Streets”, “This Is Not America”, “Absolute Beginners”, etc.). I’ve never felt much love for “Black Tie, White Noise” or “Never Let Me Down”, both of which feel largely like failed attempts to keep the MTV-era “normal” Bowie train going. I’m clearly not alone in my dislike for these albums, each is represented by a sole track, alternate versions of singles.
Listenability is the buzzword for the next handful of unremarkable (for Bowie) but foot-tapping tracks taking us into the “Let’s Dance” explosion of hits and mega-mega stardom. I’d have liked to have the live version of “Modern Love”, which is hands-down my favorite song from what I consider to be a solid but overrated album.
The “Scary Monsters” stuff is beyond reproach, and after a gazillion listens, if “Under Pressure” doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and salute, you are officially deceased. It should be on every Bowie and Queen compilation and probably every compilation ever.
It’s hard to argue with “Golden Years” and “Sound + Vision” (for reasons similar to “Under Pressure”), but the other choices from the four albums Bowie made between 1976 and 1979 are fine but uninspired, especially “Wild Is The Wind”, a track that always felt out of place in the Bowie catalog, appearing here in a 2010 remix that, while fine, ads little to the original. Why not “Helden” or the full version of “Heroes” for instance? The Berlin records feel under-served.
Disc Three; mostly the classics, albeit in edited or “single version” form. although “Young Americans” and “Life On Mars?” are remixes from the last ten years or so. I have to ask, as in the case of “Young Americans”, how do you do a remix of a single edit, which was a cut version of a stereo mix anyway. Furthermore, is bringing the bongos (or maybe it’s the toms) up that high really necessary?
There’s just no arguing with these songs, and while it’s painfully obvious to say that, I sure wish some of the spontaneity of Bowie’s “bow-wow”-ing, “woof-woof”-ing and howling on “Diamond Dogs” would find its way into his current work, which feels overwrought and overthought by comparison. Making an album a year seems like a good idea (says the guy who can barely update his own website monthly).
But I digress.
Hurtling past obvious Ziggy-era material, 1969 and “Space Oddity”, there are five early tracks that serve as little more than historical oddities – from a period when a young, ambitious Bowie was flailing around chasing trends instead of creating them.
“In The Heat Of The Morning” speaks to “Sue”, in that it’s too long, somewhat aimless and tuneless and has a very annoying organ part that is a Neanderthal cousin to “Sue’s” horn parts. “Silly Boy Blue” is pseudo-psychedelia worthy of the Monkees lesser efforts. “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” is watered down Who, but as such, stands on it’s own two legs and is one of the more fully-formed songs here. “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” and “Liza Jane” are both typical throwaway early Brit takes on American R&B forms, - much like the Stones early material, but without the raw edge and genius of Brian Jones and Mick Jagger.
This is pedestrian work from someone we expect so much from, but early work rarely is fully-formed. Every lesson learned by 60’s Bowie added up to 70’s Bowie and beyond. In that respect, even though Bowie certainly knows these are lesser works, it’s quite bold to include and illuminate them - songs which have never found their way on any Bowie-approved comp alongside his better-known material.
And this is quite possibly the point of the set in the first place; the life of an artist itself; artists start out on shaky legs, attempting to emulate their heroes and naively share their own early life experiences. But if they stick with it, they ultimately create unique, and, if they’re lucky, mind-bending work that overturns new soil and plants seeds that will echo for generations to come? And inevitably the true artist grows older, wearier, maybe less energetic but still seeking, thinking, exploring, and most importantly, creating.
Putting compilations together properly is all about having a viewpoint and making choices that illustrate your position.
Consider this choice; if you could own only one Bowie record (single or album, no cheating with compilations!), which would you choose?
I wouldn’t trade any post “Scary Monsters” Bowie album for the single of “Jean Genie” or a multitude of other classics that crackle with propulsive energy, spontaneously colliding ideas and just plain fun that is often missing in Bowie’s later work.
On the other hand, it speaks volumes that I’d have to think about “Where Are We Now” in exchange for any single song from 40 years ago. Older, sure. Wiser?, Better? Worse? – the answers to these questions are just opinions.
On one hand, almost all of these tracks were out in the world already, so what does it matter if they are collected here?
On the other, this is a lifetime of work, a sprawling, chaotic, hard to boil down puzzle, an uncontrollable collision of ideas, events, places and people; an encapsulation of work but also a representation of an artist’s life.
I am only theorizing about the point of this thing. I don’t buy it as the very best of David Bowie, and I doubt anyone does. Maybe it’s no more than a bond-server, or perhaps it’s got a grander scope, an epic concept in Bowie’s mind that no-one will grasp till years after he’s gone. Or maybe someone threw a tracklist in front of him and he rubber-stamped it.
Who knows? The mystery just makes it more fun to speculate.