“I’m exhausted from living up to your expectations.”
—Jareth the Goblin King, Labyrinth
One of the perks of being David Bowie, with a long and distinguished career behind you, more money than God, and an inexhaustibly deep well of heavy heavy cool to draw from, is that you can do whatever you want.
Last year, what David wanted to do was release a career retrospective that includes greatest hits, unreleased tracks, and songs he felt were insufficiently appreciated. He also recorded two new songs, one of which (“Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)“) leads off the three-disc, reverse-chronological-order version of Nothing Has Changed. (There are also double-vinyl and single-CD versions, each with different track listings and sequencing.) I must admit that despite my best efforts I have been unable to find a way to enjoy this song; it does not seem to be designed with enjoyment in mind.
“Sue” is perhaps best viewed as the latest step in the pas de deux between Bowie and Scott Walker, which has gone on for 40-some years now. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around but it’s quite possible that, as great as we all think being David Bowie must be, what David Bowie really wants is to be Scott Walker. My theory on this is that despite his artistic adventurousness, Bowie has always been somewhat constrained by his desire to please his audience. In doing so he has become rich and famous, but I wonder if he has in some respect felt hemmed in by what people expect of “David Bowie,” and wished for the freedom afforded a Scott Walker, who seemingly cares to please only himself. In the last 20 years Walker has abandoned all commercial considerations and explored completely alien territory that challenges what we think of as music. I don’t personally care for albums like Tilt and Bish Bosch, but there is no denying their integrity.
I feel the same way about “Sue.” I may never like it, but I’m glad David is doing what he wants instead of chasing a hit single. Enduring 7 minutes and 52 seconds of skronk is a small price to pay to get to the rest of Nothing Has Changed, which begins with three songs from 2013: “Where Are We Now,” “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” and a remix of “Love Is Lost” by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame. The first two of these are holding up pretty well; the third, with all due respect to Mr. Murphy, is a pointless evisceration of good song.
After that we get three more sets of three: three songs from the Reality/Heathen era, three from the never-released Toy album, and three from …hours. Reality is represented by “New Killer Star,” a sturdy rocker with some surprising twists. From Heathen we get “Everyone Says Hi” and “Slow Burn” – but not, for some perverse reason, “Sunday,” from which the phrase “nothing has changed” was taken. That is a bit of a head-scratcher, especially since “Sunday” is one of the best songs of Bowie’s post-Classic period (see below).
Toy, which consisted mostly of new versions of very old (pre-“Space Oddity”) Bowie songs, was recorded in 2000 but rejected by EMI, who wanted new material. For a long time it was an alluring mystery, and some of us thought it might be the Great Lost Bowie Album. But over the years most of the tracks have leaked out as B-sides, bonus tracks, and now here, and I for one am underwhelmed. They are not horrible, not unlistenable, just a bit pedestrian. The three presented here pass in a pleasant enough haze, concluding with “Shadow Man,” which has a little air of intrigue about it.
One of the most surprising things about Nothing Has Changed is how good the songs from …hours sound on it. Both “Seven“ and “Survive” are here in there “Marius De Vries mix”es, and both — especially the former — sound much improved from their album versions. As for “Thursday’s Child,” I must recuse myself; this one hits way too close to home. (If you know me, and listen to the words, you will understand why.)
From there it’s back to the mid-90s, when Bowie strategically allied himself with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame. It’s Reznor’s remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans” — originally from the Earthling album — that appears here. I liked “I’m Afraid of Americans” perfectly fine before Reznor got ahold of it, and while he didn’t ruin the song, exactly, he did amputate the main hook and add a thick layer of murk over everything. (It still annoys me a little that Bowie cozied up to Reznor, who’s an overrated Johnny One-Note if you ask me.) Next is another song from Earthling, “Little Wonder,” which sounds rather dated from this vantage; it has a solid structure, but would be better without the skittering drum’n’bass percussion layered on top.
Nothing Has Changed hits rock bottom with a version of “Hallo Spaceboy” that was remixed, or more accurately pissed all over, by the Pet Shop Boys, who stripped out everything appealing about the original in favor of tepid disco and Neil Tennant’s atonal vocals. I’ve never understood what people like about the Pet Shop Boys and still don’t. But apparently David Bowie feels differently, and he’s the boss.
This disc closes out with two more songs from Outside: “Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” which sounds very muscular in comparison to the Pet Shop Boys fiasco, and “Strangers When We Meet.” The latter is one Bowie’s catchiest songs of the last quarter-century, but as is so often the case, the jaunty surface covers very dark depths:
Steely resolve/Is falling from me
My poor soul/All bruised passivity
All your regrets/Ride rough-shod over me
I’m so glad/That we’re strangers when we meet
And that brings us full circle back to where this started. As it happens, today is David Bowie’s 68th birthday. If you’re wondering what to get him, this is just a guess, but I bet that he would like you to listen to some of his later music. I’m extrapolating from the fact that he devoted so much space on Nothing Has Changed to his post-Let’s Dance work. It’s as if he’s saying, “Hey, I worked really hard on this stuff too, and some of it turned out well. I’d like people to hear it.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that we really need to view David Bowie as two separate people, much as we do young and old Elvis. It’s almost unfair for Lesser Bowie* to have to be compared with Classic Bowie (the one who made everything up to Scary Monsters); both are very talented and hard-working, but Classic Bowie had some kind of angel, or devil, or alien sitting on his shoulder whispering celestial melodies into his ear. Lesser Bowie is just a guy who has to come up with ideas and try to make them work. He keeps trying to live up to the expectations created by Classic Bowie, but this is no easy task. That may be why it took him 10 years to make The Next Day — which, by the way, is probably Lesser Bowie’s best album, and as good place to start your birthday listening as any.
* Lesser Bowie is the one who started with the dreadful duo of Tonight and Never Let Me Down, and has been fighting for credibility ever since. I’m not sure who made Let’s Dance; maybe a third version, World-Domination Bowie? Or maybe Nile Rodgers.