Filtered Through the Prism of David Bowie's Quixotic Mind: 'A New Career in a New Town'
The third installment of the series of deluxe David Bowie box sets covers some of his most celebrated albums but not without controversy.
As music lovers all over the world gradually absorbed the stunning news of David Bowie's death on 10 January 2016, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of what turned out to be his final album Blackstar, the unequivocal certainty that his music would “live forever" became something of a mantra, a promontory from which aching fans could cling in their maelstroms of sorrow. Devotees mourned and commiserated with each other by immersing themselves in the man's seemingly endless library of masterworks, savoring each moment with a gravitas and solemnity that wasn't quite there just three days prior. Bowie's music had always been revered, but it was somehow different now that he was gone, and his fantastic voyage had finally and brutally succumbed to the grim realities of our mundane world.
Casual fans, or those who never got into his music at all, might have wondered why so many reacted to his death with the agonizing grief that one might expect with the loss of a close family member. After all, Bowie was simply a pop star, right? To that, the answer is easy: music means different things to different people. For those of us who've lived for decades with these cherished recordings, and indeed with the ever-changing persona that Bowie himself projected, the significance of his loss goes far beyond that of a frivolous entertainer. Bowie's music is an integral part of the very fabric of our lives, something akin to sacred.
Thus, it's no small thing when Bowie's entire catalog is getting a much-needed, carefully curated facelift. Parlophone Records has heralded the ongoing series of deluxe box sets as the definitive version of Bowie's recorded output, which is a bold claim to make. It's a massive undertaking, and one messes with musical artifacts of such paramount importance with a great deal of inherent peril. While most of us will no doubt always treasure our well-worn original copies of Aladdin Sane, Low and Station to Station (selling them is unthinkable, no matter how nice and shiny the new pressings may be), the prospect of a newly-polished excavation of Bowie's discography is enticing. Of course, there's an obvious and firm caveat: the project must be managed only with the most exquisite care and meticulous attention to detail.
By and large, with the third set in the series just released, it's clear that -- despite some significant quibbles -- Parlophone and the production team behind these archival projects have so far been equal to the daunting task of presenting Bowie's recorded work in the best light possible (within reason). It's not perfect, no. But then, how could it be? Take a new box set and hand it out to a roomful of 25 Bowie aficionados and you'll have 25 different takes on the finished product. As anyone who has spent time dealing with the public understands, it's impossible to please everyone -- especially the obsessive fans who are the target audience for these lavish collections.
So while the tears were flowing and fans were still gobsmacked by the blazing genius of Blackstar, there also existed the opportunity -- just in time -- to relive the first part of Bowie's back catalog at, presumably, the highest level of sound quality in its history. In September 2015, only a few months before Bowie's passing, the ambitious series was launched with Five Years (1969–1973). This initial collection covers Bowie's breakthrough Space Oddity through Pin-ups, including his crucial Ziggy Stardust period. While not perfect, the release was rightly hailed by fans and critics as a first-rate presentation of Bowie's early classics.
It's sequel arrived in September 2016 -- Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976) encompasses Diamond Dogs through Station to Station, and is most notable for the first official release of The Gouster, a precursor album to Young Americans. Once again the set was mostly praised, although it was undeniably on the thin side and heavily supplemented with live material (did we really need five LPs worth of David Live? I think not).
Right on cue, a year later, the third and most eagerly awaited in the series has arrived, along with a torrent of controversy: A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982). The latest set presents, over the span of 11 CDs or 13 LPs, Bowie's vaunted “Berlin Trilogy" (very little of which was actually recorded in Berlin) -- Low, "Heroes", and Lodger -- along with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), the benchmark to which any Bowie album released in the last 37 has been held. Also included is the 1978 live album Stage and a third volume of rarities and scattered tracks from the same time period, Re:Call 3.
Tony Visconti, longtime Bowie collaborator and co-producer of the original albums included here, supervised the new editions with assistance from ace mastering engineer Ray Staff. The latest is the best in the series so far, largely because it contains the most piercingly brilliant sequence of albums in Bowie's career. As with the first two sets, A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) is not without its flaws, but there's no question that the beautifully packaged set is well-worth its rather hefty price-tag.
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When Low first appeared in January 1977 (appropriately enough, as it's a cold-weather album if there ever was one), it must have seemed like Bowie had finally gone off the deep end. The was a long way from Ziggy Stardust. It was clear that selling boatloads of records was not his primary objective, and it's very easy to imagine the reaction from his label upon first hearing what it was expected to market. Bowie had never shied away from making sharp left turns stylistically, but Low was his most dramatic and stubbornly non-commercial outing yet. It was worth the risk. All these years later, many consider it to be his finest work.
Produced by Bowie with Visconti and featuring prominent input by former Roxy Music electronics experimentalist Brian Eno, Low is a stark and cinematic musical experience completely unlike anything Bowie had ever attempted. His restlessness and eagerness to dabble in different sonic disciplines culminated in an uncompromising masterpiece that proved to be enormously influential, particularly on the new wave and post-punk era as the MTV generation approached.
Listening to Low is like picking up fragmented radio signals broadcast from under the icy surface of a desolate moon hiding in Saturn's shadow. Or, one might say it's otherworldly, but then Bowie keenly understood the music of the cosmos and could lovingly translate alien frequencies better than anybody. Visconti's remaster does the album justice; it's never sounded better. Comparing it to the original, the most obvious improvement is a subtle but noticeable increase in the swell of bass, a richness that adds weight to the album's glacial minimalism without overpowering it.