I resisted buying the new David Bowie 3-CD anthology, Nothing Has Changed, for the better part of 20 minutes. I already have most of those songs, I tried to convince myself, and it’s unlikely there will be any real revelations among the outtakes and rarities. I had already heard the new single, “Sue (or a Season of Crime)” and decided I didn’t care for it.
But I am weak, and it was not that expensive, so my resistance did not last. And although everything I told myself is true, I can’t say I regret the purchase; the opportunity to hear new Bowie songs, or old Bowie songs in a new context, is always welcome.
The gimmick in this set is that it is sequenced in reverse chronological order, which definitely changes the narrative, turning Bowie into an artist who starts off experimental and abstract but self-assured, goes through a long shaky period, and emerges from it as a mind-blowing rock’n’roll superman, before petering out in a series of derivative, underdeveloped, but not charmless singles.
I actually cheated a little bit and listened to discs 2 and 3 first, because I was on a car trip with two teenage girls in the back seat and I didn’t think they’d sit still for a full disc of late-period Bowie. Even so, we all got a little restless during “Buddha of Suburbia” and “Jump They Say,” but to the rescue, surprisingly, came “Time Will Crawl” — a refugee from the abysmal Never Let Me Down, but in this context it sounded great. (The version included here, the “MM Remix,” may be better than the original, which I haven’t heard for a while.)
“Absolute Beginners” has never been a special favorite of mine, but it also made a favorable impression coming through the car speakers (the remastering here is universally excellent, bringing out heretofore unheard subtleties in the songs). The opening bars of “Dancing in the Street” brought a chorus of laughter from the back; though this song was released many years before either of them were born, the girls are aware of the video as a particularly embarrassing low point in the careers of both Bowie and Mick Jagger. I offered to skip it but was rebuffed; they seemed to enjoy it on some level, perhaps ironic, perhaps not. (“Dancing in the Street” is a great song that cannot be entirely killed by the uber-80s production and vocal performances, which lean heavily on the worst affectations of both men.)
This cheered me, because I knew that we were tiptoeing through Bowie’s artistic graveyard, and now that we had survived Never Let Me Down, there was only Tonight to contend with. “Loving the Alien,” also never a particular favorite of mine (filed under “least awful songs from Tonight”), also sounded surprisingly sprightly in the “single remix” version. Then, after “This Is Not America,” which is totally harmless, we ran smack dab into “Blue Jean,” which I still can’t stand.
What makes “Blue Jean” so sad is not just that it is a transparent stab at a hit single, but that it is a transparent and clumsy and unsuccessful stab at a hit single. The songs that followed it — the three obvious tracks from Let’s Dance — sound positively luminous by comparison. I am normally leery of “Modern Love,” but coming out of “Blue Jean,” it was a breath of fresh air. And truth be told, both “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” are perfectly fine songs, just ones that got horrendously overexposed. Close your eyes and think of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and they’re over before you know it.
At this point we had done all the heavy lifting and arrived at 1980. For some reason I never think of Scary Monsters as being among Bowie’s best albums, but the three singles collected here — “Fashion,” the title track, and “Ashes to Ashes” — are fucking amazing, and some of the album tracks (“Up the Hill Backwards,” the “It’s No Game”s) are on the same level. What really amazes me about this stuff is that it is, on the one hand, so incredibly weird — with bizarre lyrics and abnormal rhythms and strange screeching sounds running through the mix — but cut so skillfully with recognizable elements of rock and funk and soul that it is pretty much irresistible.
Speaking of irresistible — up next was “Under Pressure,” which is welcome pretty much anywhere, anytime. If there’s anyone alive who doesn’t like this song, I haven’t met them. I wonder what it was like in the studio with David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. They make for an interesting contrast; the guy who pretty much pretended to be gay to advance his career, and the guy who for years pretended not to be gay (writing songs like “Fat Bottomed Girls”) when it was transparently obvious that he was. In any case, this song is sort of a miracle, a gift from the gods, and I was quite thankful for it this Thanksgiving.
As every review of Nothing Has Changed I’ve read has pointed out, the “Berlin trilogy” is represented by just three songs, one from each album. The choice of “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger seems questionable — I’d have preferred “D.J.” and/or “Fantastic Voyage” — and Adrian Belew’s screechy guitar solo brought requests from the back to please turn it down. Which were followed by requests to turn it up when “Heroes” started. (Ed: Should there be two sets of quotes there?) Again, for a piece of commercially popular music, “Heroes” is really pretty far out there. Sonically it’s on a different planet from anything else that was popular at the time, or now, or anywhere in between, really.
From Low we get “Sound and Vision,” and as with many of the songs on Low the only thing wrong with “Sound and Vision” is that it’s too short. Would it have killed him to throw in “Breaking Glass” (1:56)? I assume that it was David himself making these decisions, which leads one to wonder why the relative paucity of Berlin tracks. Maybe it’s because these albums, which at their time of release were not critically or commercially successful, have become so revered that David figures that argument has been won — he’d rather use the space for more songs from hours (which rates three tracks on its own). And who am I to argue? He’s David fucking Bowie.
Disc 2 closes with two songs from Station to Station. “Golden Years” is perhaps Bowie’s most convincingly sunny song. It is much more believable than pandering crap like “Blue Jean,” perhaps because it retains a hint of menace (“run for the shadows,” indeed). I think I could hear it every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of it. The closing spot goes to “Wild Is the Wind,” which sounds particularly luscious in this mix (the 2010 Harry Maslin Mix, we are told). I like to think that somewhere in an unmarked box there is a duet of this song featuring David and Frank Sinatra, who visited the studio during the Station to Station sessions. But in the meantime, this version will do just fine, floating us in for a landing for now.