Initially recorded in 1996 in New York, during rehearsals for his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, ChangesNowBowie sees David Bowie dipping in and out of his back catalogue in a playful mood. Serious Bowie fans will roll their eyes and reach for their complete and unexpurgated, unauthorized recordings of this often bootlegged release, and complain that the running order has been changed and the interview and birthday messages from Bono, Robert Smith, and Scott Walker have been consigned to the studio floor. For the rest of us, this nine-track, almost unplugged set will do very nicely.
The tracklisting on ChangesNowBowie gives us a window into Bowie’s mindset at the tail end of the 1990s. At the time of recording, he was between 1995’s Outside and the soon to be released Earthling – the electronic years, in other words. Possibly as a sorbet to clear his palate or in a willfully perverse mood, he chose to record these tracks for the BBC in a reflective, semi-acoustic style. The results are often gorgeous.
Joining Bowie here are Gail Ann Dorsey, Mark Plati, and Reeves Gabrels, who do a great job of coping with a typically wide variety of styles. The album starts with “The Man Who Sold the World”, which just three years previously, had been performed in a similarly open and unvarnished form by Nirvana – a parallel which wasn’t lost on Bowie. From there, the listener gets a grab bag of curios, almost hits, and fan favorites. Choosing not to play anything from his previous or forthcoming album, he picks album tracks and cover versions, but it was his birthday party, after all. All nine songs survive the removal of drums and production, and a couple, arguably, sound all the better for it. The much-maligned Tin Machine also gets a look with “Shopping for Girls” from their second LP. Perhaps we are getting closer to a world where it’s OK to say that you liked Bowie’s version of an alternative rock band.
“Aladdin Sane” even without Mike Garsons stunning, dissonant piano sounds lush and full here, with Dorsey providing some very ’70s-Bowie backing vocals and Gabrels adding what sounds like an electric sitar which jangles in the background. Gabrels plugs his electric guitar in for a cover of “White Light/White Heat”, which rumbles along very nicely and is a reminder of how far ahead of the curve Bowie was. When most critics couldn’t even spell Lou Reed, Bowie was singing his praises and covering his material in front of thousands of Bowie-ites, hungry for decadence and darkness. The unloved Tin Machine track “Shopping for Girls” might be the highlight of this record. An understated, bluesy approach and a great vocal from Bowie make this song a quiet classic.
Another highlight is a rambunctious, campfire version of Lodger’s “Repetition”, the darkness of the lyric in stark contrast to the jaunty feel of this arrangement. The line, “I guess the bruises won’t show / If she wears long sleeves”, sounds especially chilling here, counterpointed by a mournful slide guitar. Hearing it on ChangesNowBowie is like hearing it for the first time.
The album finishes with a beautifully measured version of Hunky Dory’s “Quicksand” complete with the Himmler and Crowley references intact. The lyric carries more weight here, being sung by the 50-year-old, weather-beaten troubadour rather than the wide-eyed, 24-year-old dilettante.
Since he died in 2016, there has unsurprisingly been a new wave of interest in his work, with several posthumous releases clogging the racks. The great thing about ChangesNowBowie is that although, if you knew where to look, you could pick this up already as a bootleg, it’s far better to have these nine tracks in an unadulterated, hi-fi format. These songs sound beautiful – Bowie’s voice has real power, and his minimal band support him sympathetically and well. This doesn’t seem to be a money-grabbing exercise in throwing out a piece of lackluster product in the hope that Bowie fans will automatically buy it – there seems to be some thought and care behind this release. There will be umpteen nasty cash-in albums to come, I’ve no doubt. But ChangesNowBowie shows a confident artist having a little fun in a relaxed mood. Happy belated 50th birthday, Mr. Bowie.