After the majestically rich glam box set, the gloriously excessive cocaine-soul period and the art-rock genius of the Berlin albums, Bowie’s 1980s reinvention as mullet-haired mainstream pop star was always going to be a tougher sell. Even Bowie himself called these his “Phil Collins years”. Padded out with uneven live albums, indifferent remixes and anodyne film soundtrack songs, this 120-track package makes for depressingly arid listening in places. That said, no anthology that includes the heart-soaring Absolute Beginners or the high-gloss Let’s Dance can be considered a total wash-out.
Bowie’s 1983 album Let’s Dance album sold a career-topping 10 million copies, transforming this former leper messiah into a stadium-rocking superstar. Nile Rodgers’s bright, disco-friendly production still divides fans, but the album endures thanks to its super-catchy singles and a handful of underrated gems, including the achingly lovely Without You and the funk-pop floor-stomper Shake It.
Less than 18 months later, the Tonight album became Bowie’s first serious critical failure. Even with extensive input from Iggy Pop, Bowie sounds cluelessly adrift on an ocean of sterile yacht-rock, reggae-lite muzak and gruesome cover versions. With a few noteworthy exceptions, chiefly the sublime Loving Tthe Alien, this pastel-shaded collection still sounds limp and lifeless.
The key fan-bait in this lavishly packaged box set is a bold reworking of Bowie’s 1987 career nadir Never Let Me Down. A team of seasoned Bowie collaborators led by producer-engineer Mario McNulty have performed radical surgery on these tracks, replacing their booming, cluttered, heavily studio-processed production with more subtle, moody, artful arrangements.
So is it really possible to reverse-engineer a ‘lost’ avant-rock album from a lacklustre soft-rock misfire? Arguably. On the positive side, Bowie’s vocals are now generally clearer and more sympathetically framed, especially on the sweetly romantic title track. But adding discordant drones, minor-key shifts and sci-fi trip-hop rumbles to thin material like Day-In Day-Out or Shining Star (Makin’ My Love) is more cosmetic gimmick than inspired transformation. Trying to salvage Bowie’s most derided album is an admirably ambitious experiment, but low-grade source material was always going to be an obstacle. Some turds just cannot be polished.