David Bowie, “Loving the Alien [1983–1988]”

David Bowie
Loving the Alien [1983–1988]
PARLOPHONE/RHINO
7/10

By now it is no secret that, despite the fortune and greater fame it brought him in his post-Ziggy/Berlin period, David Bowie was no fan of his 19831988 era work that this newest box set displays. For a man who sang haughtily, wisely, and presciently of Orwell’s 1984 in 1974 (courtesy of his glam-soul Diamond Dogs), when the actual 1984 came around, his sound was overproduced, and his lyrics seemed less futurist than grounded in not-so-modern romance. And yet, you always knew that if you (or Bowie, or his team after his 2016 passing) dug deep enough, you would find the rawer, less sleekly mastered versions of these songs—or at the very least, variations without Syndrums.

The eleven-CD box, fifteen-piece vinyl set, and standard digital download collection—with or without its hardback book of photos—is well worth the price of admission, as its “RE:CALL 4” disc cobbles together all of Bowie’s glossy film songs from that era, including: the showy centerpiece tracks from Absolute Beginners (the big band-y song “That’s Motivation” is still one of modern musical cinema’s brightest moments), the gently poetic ambient jazz of “This Is Not America” (the theme from The Falcon and the Snowman with the Pat Metheny Group at its arpeggiated best), the dreamy “When The Wind Blows” (from the flick of the same name), and his goblin king stuff from Labyrinth—which, for me, will always look better than it sounds, no matter what mastering is made or re-made.

That said, the new masters of Bowie’s rhythm-and-glitter 1983 opus Let’s Dance (overseen by its original coconceptualist Nile Rodgers) and 1984’s rushed-into-production Tonight find some of their excessive ’80s eccentricities tamped down in their new mix—without losing the thwomp of Rodgers’ repetitive rhythms and toms.

This brings us to the second version of Never Let Me Down, redone mostly according to Bowie’s extensive notes by his one-time engineer Mario J. McNulty (Reality, The Next Day) and featuring a bevy of Bowie stalwarts such as drummer Sterling Campbell, string arranger Nico Muhly, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and guitarists Reeves Gabrels and David Torn, along with friend/vocalist Laurie Anderson. Together, they deconstruct some of Bowie’s own favorite melodies and complex choruses in a more organic-sounding (less sequenced or over-processed) fashion. While this doesn’t make lesser Bowie moments such as “Time Will Crawl” brilliant, it does make the best stuff (e.g. the romantic title track) softer, rounder, and subtler without losing any punch. And with that, modern art music’s greatest crooner still sounds full-bloodedly theatrical and possessed of endless sensuality.

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