What does it sound like?:
David Bowie emerged from the eighties a rich man but in the wilderness as an artist. A period of relative anonymity as a band member of Tin Machine, and the sense that the Sound + Vision tour effectively retired his back catalogue, suggest the move was deliberate. There was a part of Brit Pop that was influenced by seventies Bowie but very few of the younger acts and music journalists seemed familiar with his work. The result was that he could spend the nineties enjoying writing and recording music without having to consider the needs of a commercial or a critical audience.
Nile Rodgers still hoped to make a hit but Bowie preferred to create a playlist about himself and his new wife, a jazz-influenced, club-ready sequence of tracks to start their own private party. He always wanted to be a saxophonist in a jazz quartet and on Black Tie White Noise he almost realises his dream. The album is a kind of Acid Jazz, a genre that enjoyed a commercial breakthrough in the early nineties. Lester Bowie, a jazz trumpeter of real class, had the good grace to allow David the space to indulge himself while brightening up the music considerably for the four tracks he plays on. The covers tell us more than the self-composed songs; one for his brother Terry, who committed suicide on a railway track, a Cream song with a last solo by his brother-in-arms, Mick Ronson; one for his new wife, a song from her then favourite album that really should have remained between themselves; one for his hero, Scott Walker, a song written as a response to “Heroes”, echoed back as a touching tribute; and one by an acolyte who worshipped him, Morrissey, performed as a cabaret diva.
For The Buddha Of Suburbia, a story set in Bromley in the sixties, Bowie thumbed through his scrapbooks, thirty years of memories, experiences and songs flicking by in a moment and dumped whatever he had in his head onto tape over a period of six days. At times it’s strange, it’s beautiful, it’s catchy but, overall, it’s an understated autobiography of Bowie the artist with indirect, subtle nods to his previous work. The title track alone, with its great hook, quotes Space Oddity musically, All The Madmen lyrically and The Bewley Brothers in spirit. It’s almost as if he knew it would be his most obscure album, waiting patiently to be discovered and properly understood.
1. Outside is a grand project intended to reintroduce an Art-Rock Bowie to a larger audience. It’s hard to consume, interrupted by segues and hamstrung by a largely incomprehensible plot, often undermined by its authors. It was his last collaboration with Eno, in his Nerve Net/My Squelchy Life phase, and his last recordings with Carlos Alomar, perhaps his best and most faithful lieutenant. However, as a failure it is heroic, yielding some of Bowie’s most enthralling pieces, dark, urgent and thrilling, best listened to alone, in subdued light under oversized cans.
Earthling, loud with savage guitar and jungle drum & bass, is designed to unleash the power of his awesome band. Bowie seemed to want to be part of a gang that included Goldie, A Guy Called Gerald and Tricky, beating Gerri Halliwell with his ragged Union Jack coat. It was uncomfortable listening to him following a trend but it’s more of a misfit than any other in his catalogue. He turned fifty in 1997 and he sounds bitter and grumpy, like a man determined to beat the kids at Crash Bandicoot as he rants about religion, death and decay. Listening to it twenty-five years later, its songs may be too long but it’s sharp, witty, and totally bonkers.
‘hours…’ is an older David Bowie passing his younger self along the stair as he turns to make his descent. On the cover, a healthy, vibrant Bowie cradles a frail, dying one. Inevitably, he looks back but with sadness and regret rather than anger. Seven updates Five Years, this time desperate for more time. Something In The Air references Thunderclap Newman, Albatross and Straight To Hell. The Strangers or the Sons Of The Silent Age revisit in The Angels Of Promise. There are echoes of Hunky Dory, an album recorded by a young man without an audience but with ambitious dreams. ‘hours…’ is a quiet, delicate, intimate record, that of a mature man coming to terms with who he is, who he used to be, the inevitability of death and mourning the loss of dreams unfulfilled. The production successfully avoids crushing the lovely melodies but, in the lyrics, Bowie often finds himself unable to breathe. He is on the edge of life, uncertain if he will make it until tomorrow, anguished and alone, vulnerable and beautiful to behold.
At the turn of the century, Bowie finally gave his live audience the hits, the crowning glory being a triumphant set at Glastonbury. A few days later, a performance at the BBC Theatre was recorded. His laryngitis had significantly improved and the band had relaxed into the material. The result is the best live recording Bowie ever made, only ever available in edited form for Bowie At The Beeb. Now, it is presented in its complete glory over two CDs or three LPs.
Toy, officially released for the first time, is a logical step further back, revisiting his sixties songbook, a time when Bowie couldn’t decide who or what he wanted to be. He tried many different styles in an attempt to find something that fit. The songs on Toy are an eclectic bunch. Some are naive, others mature, and some are excellent, especially the slower ones such as A Conversation Piece, Shadow Man and Silly Boy Blue. Mostly, they are raucous and ‘mod’. The band, possibly his finest, view them through 21st Century eyes while retaining their youthful energy. Bowie, himself, is rejuvenated, singing with relish, as if bumping into some old friends in the pub and deciding to make a night of it. It’s flawed, it’s warm, and it’s a blast. If you weren’t aware of the songs’ provenance, you’d regard them as in keeping with Bowie’s 2001 universe and you’d think Toy a lively return to form. The record company refused to release it, so he left the label and set about making one of the most commercially successful albums of his entire career.
There is enough extra material for three Re:Call 5 CDs. As always, the Bowie legacy focusses on tracks previously available in one form or another. There is, therefore, nothing from Leon, the project that became Outside. However, there are soundtracks, including music for the computer game Omikron, remixes, B sides, foreign language versions and some rejects. Lucy Can’t Dance’s takedown of Madonna still raises a smile but he turns on the charm with Angelo Badalamento for an elegant version of A Foggy Town In London. Thursday’s Child, one of a few songs with multiple, very similar takes, feels especially important to Bowie, describing a miserable life rescued by true love. However, a version of The Who’s Pictures Of Lily, taken at a slow pace and delivered by a less priapic, older gentleman, just feels wrong.
If Toy is Bowie’s lost album, then The Nineties were, in many ways, his lost decade. After the excesses of the late eighties and his subsummation in Tin Machine, much of his existing audience turned away and he didn’t attract many new members to replace them. Nevertheless, this box proves that he never lost his love of the bizarre and the strange, his ability to put together a dynamite band nor his knack with a tune. At the time, there was a sense that he was looking backwards, re-mining old seams, but there is a lot of outstanding work in this box spread across its eleven CDs or eighteen LPs. Brilliant Adventure captures a happy, healthy Bowie, nicely loved up with Iman, content with his outsider status, indulging himself in the studio, and pursuing other interests, including art and exploring the Internet. It’s a real pleasure to listen to from beginning to end.
What does it all *mean*?
Form is temporary, class is permanent.
Is there any sound better than that of someone enjoying life?
Goes well with…
The other four Bowie boxes with, presumably, one more to come.
26th November 2021
Might suit people who like…
David Bowie. Brilliant Adventure is aimed at the established fan.