Back in 2002, EMI decided to release the definitive go-to David Bowie compilation. But, because it’s Bowie, the label went about defining the legacy of one of rock music’s most seminal artists in the most peculiar of ways.
In short, if you bought The Best of Bowie, check the top left corner of the CD inlay and see what flag is represented there, as that will define what track list you got. Given that Bowie has had international hits for decades upon decades, EMI released no less than 12 different versions of The Best of Bowie, making specialty tracklists for the US/Canada, the UK, Belgium, Hong Kong, Mexico, and so forth, each one laser-focusing on the songs that were hits in that specific region. Some versions were single-disc, some were double, Hong Kong’s was triple (that third disc mainly focused on dance remixes). Following previous compilation high-points Changesonebowie (from 1976) and 1989’s iconic Sound + Vision, it appeared that, for the most part, Bowie’s legacy was now well-defined. The Best of Bowie only missed cuts from 2003’s Reality, but, let’s be honest, no one’s shedding glitter-specked tears over that.
Yet Bowie took everyone by surprise with the release of 2013’s surprisingly divisive The Next Day, and now, just in time for the 2014 holiday season, comes one of the most curious compilations to emerge in some time: the triple-disc retrospective called Nothing Has Changed. Roughly the price of a single CD, Nothing Has Changed is a bold slice of career revisionism: it has all the hits, but also has new material, including the seven-minute, jazz-accented single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”. It has a lot of gimmes for casual fans exploring Bowie for the first time—bunches of radio edits and single versions, along with the Pet Shop Boys remix of “Hallo Spaceboy”—but it contains some genuine rarities to boot. These perks range from the hard-to-find version of “All the Young Dudes” Bowie recorded prior to Mott the Hoople turned it into a hit all the way to his absolute earliest release “Liza Jane”, a 1964 single credited to Davie Jones and the King Bees. In short, there is something for everyone here.
While there does exist a two-disc version of Nothing Has Changed—which is in chronological order and emphasizes all the big hits, running from “Space Oddity” to “Sue”—the reverse-chronological nature of the three-disc version makes for a fascinating aural experience, as by starting with songs like the hazy Berlin remembrance “Where Are We Now?” and James Murphy’s incredible remix to “Love is Lost” (which takes a small room full of applause and turns the clapping into a looping percussive beat), a Bowie neophyte can really get a sense of the the man’s out-there weirdness very early on, as the first disc contains no “easy hits”. The warm synth workout of “Thursday’s Child”, the confused Trent Reznor collaboration “I’m Afraid of Americans”, and the drum-n-bass techno workout “Little Wonder” all give us the boundary-pushing (and, at times, trend-chasing) nature of Bowie’s latter-day whims and impulses. His status as one of rock’s elder statesmen allows him a breadth of freedom that results in some fascinating works as well some notable failures. Even more incredible? The fact that “Let Me Sleep Beside You” and “Your Turn to Drive” from the rare Toy sessions also make their way onto this first serving—although, one may argue, their inclusion comes at a bit of a price.
The second disc (Middle Bowie?) features a bevy of hits, ranging from all the big stunners from 1983’s Let’s Dance to, ahem, “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger. Some may snipe over a couple of fan-favorite exclusions, such as that infamous Bing Crosby Christmas duet, the Tarantino-revivied “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, and the Labyrinth soundtrack cut “Underground”. However, “Loving the Alien”, “Blue Jean”, “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”, “Under Pressure” with Queen, and “Ashes to Ashes” all show up.
If any real criticism can be levied against this disc, it’s that when taking in that mixture of chart successes versus fan favorites, it’s damn near disappointing to find that when regarding “The Berlin Trilogy”, only one cut apiece is culled from those three seminal albums: “Sound and Vision” from Low, the title track from “Heroes”, and “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger. While no one will argue against the notion that those LPs weren’t always the most accessible of Bowie’s works, having the luxury of three entire discs of space and a lead-off single that’s a seven-minute jazz exercise, the lack of deeper cuts like “Always Crashing in the Same Car” from Low—which, arguably, is a more telling indication of Bowie’s personality than the rare cuts from Toy are—is ultimately a bit of a disappointment, minor a quibble as it may be.
As for Nothing‘s third act, which covers everything prior to “Golden Years”, it’s really tough to think of any improvements outside of the possible inclusion of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “John, I’m Only Dancing” (for those who really wish to make a case for “The Laughing Gnome”, you are more than welcome to). Then there’s “Drive-In Saturday”, “Rebel Rebel”, “The Jean Genie”, “Starman”, “Fame”, “Life on Mars?”, and, of course “Space Oddity”. It’s all there, albeit some with some slightly-updated mixes from 2003 and 2007, even if most the changes are negligible at best.
The real get, however, outside of under-appreciated tracks like “Silly Boy Blue” and the rare “In the Heat of the Morning” from the 1970 bizarro comp The World of David Bowie, are the three “pre-fame” cuts that make their way here. The latter group includes the jangly folk-pop strummer of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”, the nervy throwback “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” from his early band the Lower Third, and, most amusingly, the surf-rock strut of inaugural single “Liza Jane”. On these tunes Bowie is really playing with his influences, even if he’s not really synthesizing them into anything incredibly distinctive at this point in his career. Still, hearing these embryonic rock ‘n’ roll sketches so far removed from the soul experiments of “Young Americans” or even the galloping post-rock yearning of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” makes for an incredible experiment. Hearing Bowie’s evolution in reverse-chronological order actually makes for a compelling experience, as the influences slowly reveal themselves as each successive track dives further back into his vault. This process shows the growing pains and wild successes in his artistic evolution.
With this string of five obscurities closing out Nothing Has Changed, one is forced to come to the conclusion that, despite the album’s bold title (itself derived from a lyric from 2002’s Heathens), actually, everything has changed. His aesthetics, his styles, his voice, and his impeccable songwriting chops have gone through too many revolutions to mention, having left several lifetimes’ worth of personas and seminal albums for fans to parse for years and decades to come. Nothing Has Changed, despite the exact nature of its target demographic being up for debate, remains a thrilling go-to for the semi-casual Thin White Duke observer, and is about as damn close to perfect as a Bowie anthology can get.
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