The fourth of the now-traditional annual David Bowie boxsets should be the first to make even hardcore Bowie fans pause before forking out £220. The unexpected scale of the success of Let’s Dance undoubtedly spooked Bowie, and he didn’t recover for the rest of the decade. No one, least of all Bowie himself, could pretend Let’s Dance’s successors Tonight and Never Let Me Down are among his best albums.
And yet, David Bowie being David Bowie, the reputation of his 1980s music is something he’s managed to rectify here, despite the distinct disadvantage of being dead. The highlight of the box is Never Let Me Down 2018 – Bowie apparently stated he wanted the album to be completely overhauled. Mario McNulty, previously a minor Bowie footnote as engineer on The Next Day, deserves enormous credit for turning the album on its head.
Perfectly using past collaborators and string arranger Nico Muhly, what was previously a largely unlistenable textbook example of the mid 80s losing its collective mind now reveals there are some bloody lovely songs in there after all. What once reduced Bowie to sounding like Johnny Hates Jazz now feels of a piece with Heathen for being tasteful while retaining his mischief. Even the unlovely Bang Bang has learned to walk upright, while replacing Mickey Rourke’s incoherent ‘rap’ on Shining Star (Makin’ My Love) with the glacial Laurie Anderson is a majestic switch.
The new, crisper sleeve is an upgrade, too. Of the pre-existing albums, Nile Rodgers’ passionate essay in the book accompanying Loving The Alien makes clear just how unlikely Let’s Dance was to be a gigantic seller in the post ‘Disco Sucks’ age. It’s one of the original albums to be frontloaded with its best tracks, with Ricochet and Criminal World inexcusable filler on an album with only eight songs. That said, its singles remain carefree wonders.
With its mix of originals and covers, Tonight always felt a stopgap. Bowie’s take on Chuck Jackson’s I Keep Forgettin’ is possibly the most bloodless, leaden-footed song he ever made. But Tonight does contain the beautiful Loving The Alien, and his cover of God Only Knows is deliciously odd, so it’s not the total turkey of legend.
Whatever the wrongs of Bowie’s songwriting and production during the 80s, his tours were expanding in scope: the two live albums here prove he was at home in the stadiums. Serious Moonlight is a solid transition up from arenas; even shorn of its visuals, Glass Spider is an OTT thrill.
The rest of the box is now standard: Re:Call 4 and Dance round up the non-album and 12″ tracks, without of course any of the unreleased songs Bowie’s estate is still very cautiously guarding. The book is reliably sumptuous, though its photos offer a distressing reminder of the moustache Bowie sported around Tonight that even he couldn’t carry off. There are, as before, no download codes, a continuing scandal for £220.
In essence, Loving The Alien is an excellently curated document of Bowie losing it, until the only thing left to do to escape the stadiums he was trapped in was to raze his career to the ground and start again. Hence Tin Machine…