David Bowie - David Bowie Box - ISO/Columbia/Legacy (10 CDs)
By Daniel Krow of Audio Audition
The question on my mind is: why? Why put Bowie's last five albums in a boxed set? Even hardcore Bowie fans - the kind most likely to shell out for a box set - would have to admit Bowie's work since the 80s has been pretty poor. While Bowie has always been an artist with his finger on new trends, the 90s found him desperate to either impress us with his artiness and aloofness or associate him with new (at the time) hip genres of music like drum and bass or jungle. Neither approach was too successful, forcing him to call up his frequent collaborator and legendary producer, Tony Visconti, to recreate some of his past glory. The Visconti-assisted albums, Heathen and Reality, are the best albums in the set, but they hardly make up for the rest of the set's dullness and excess.
The first album in the set, 1995's Outside, is a ponderous mess. Loosely tied together by a story about a detective looking for a 14 year old girl murdered in cyberspace (yes, it's that kind of album), the album is marred by plodding songs, melodramatic (and often off key) vocals, and annoying spoken word skits, featuring different characters from the story (all voiced by Bowie). A few tracks on the album manage to be enjoyable, especially the catchy I Have Not Been to Oxford Town, and the paranoid No Control.
Outside's bonus disc features a decent remix of Outside's semi-hit The Heart's Filthy Lesson by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, who adds crunchy guitar and an ominous sub bass line, giving the song a more industrial music sound. Other tracks include superfluous remixes of The Heart's Filthy Lesson with inane titles like Rubber mix and Simple Test mix. Adding an extra drum pattern here and there and extending the song's intro two minutes longer hardly makes a song better or even different. The 12-inch mix of Hallo Spaceboy turns it into a house song, with a booming bass drum and ethereal synthesizers.
The second album in the set, Earthling, while technically more accessible than an art project like Outside, is still poorly conceived and produced. Obsessed with sounding cutting and hip, Bowie adds the stuttering drums found in drum-and-bass tracks to nearly a third of the tracks, even when their inclusion is not only unnecessary but actually detrimental to the song. It's as if Bowie figured all he had to do was put some fast drums and weird sounds on his album and he'd sound relevant. But far worse than the drum tracks are the guitar stylings of Bowie's lead guitarist, Reeves Gabrels. Gabrels never met an inch of a song he couldn't fill with squeals, riffs, or showy noodling. Nothing screams musical irrelevancy quicker than letting your session guitarist turn a decent song into a picking contest. So many songs on Earthling start out well until a wall of guitars appears with little respect for dynamics or melody.
Earthling's bonus disc features a dull 'club' mix of Little Wonder, by Junior Vasquez; a dance mix by Danny Saber that makes Bowie sound trapped in his own song, unable to stop all the flashing lights and whistles; and a remix of I'm Afraid of Americans by Trent Reznor, that just adds more guitars to an already guitar heavy song.
The third album in the set, Hours, suffers from many of the same issues as Earthling. It's overproduced, features layers and layers of unnecessary guitar parts, and finds Bowie too often singing theatrically when he should be singing dramatically. One of the album's few gems is Seven, a ballad featuring an acoustic guitar melody, tasteful slide guitar, and a gentle, country-tinged tone that isn't interrupted by an electric guitar riff. Besides being the album's best song, it also features Bowie's best vocal performance, his over the top emoting replaced by a confident, comfortable vocal tone. The bonus disc for Hours features two remixes of Seven by Beck, both of which sound so bored and thrown together I wouldn't be surprise if they were made fifteen minutes before they were supposed to be sent out.
The fourth disc on the album, Heathen, finally shows signs of a Bowie I can enjoy. Certainly, a lot of credit has to go to Tony Visconti, who helmed Bowie classics like Young Americans and Scary Monsters. Songs like Slip Away, Slow Burn, and Everyone Says Hi, all feature a confident Bowie doing what he does best: singing vaguely alienated songs of modern discontent. I don't want to imply that Bowie can't be versatile, but no longer young and impetuous, he sounds most natural singing from a mature but still vulnerable point of view.
The final disc on the album, Reality, is by far the best. With an exception of a bizarre cover of Jonathan Richman's Pablo Picasso, every song is catchy, well produced, and as urgent sounding as an elder statesman like Bowie is ever going to sound. Instead of endless guitar riffing, the guitars sound clear and rich without being overbearing. Instead of the loud, echoey drums of the previous albums, the drums finally have air to breathe.
Overall, I can't really recommend the Bowie Box. Unless you're a diehard fan,who has to own everything produced by the man, the prospect of shelling out that much money for basically two good albums and one or two interesting remixes is ridiculous.
TrackList: Far too many to list