David Bowie

Lov­ing The Alien (1983 – 1988)

Classic Rock - - Reviews - stephen Dalton

Bowie’s most crit­i­cally de­rided pe­riod, remixed, remastered and par­tially re­ha­bil­i­tated.

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 sta­di­um­rock­ing su­per­star. Nile Rodgers’s bright, dis­cofriendly 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 pro­duc­erengi­neer 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 soft­rock 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 low­grade source ma­te­rial was al­ways go­ing to be an ob­sta­cle. Some turds just can­not be pol­ished.

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