There’s an elegant graphic overlay on the cover of David Bowie’s current CD, a sticker that shares one word with the collection’s title; “Nothing has changed.” runs along the bottom, a ghostly slogan without a product, while the sticker (fixed perpendicularly to the title and intersecting at the “changed.”) promises “the Very Best of Bowie,” a concession to marketing he may have designed to be clawed off the minute you buy it.
Qualms about commercialism notwithstanding, this is a very public album — though he starts off doing what he damn pleases (and I’m pleased too), with the brand-new “Sue (or, In a Season of Crime),” a soaringly melancholy soliloquy of a lover betrayed by his own blind eye set to a gorgeous grinding jazz symphony. On an album with a lot of them, the concept of the remix is pushed to new conceptual territories by the “single edit” you can hear on YouTube that makes it seem as if Sue died, and the 7-plus-minute version in this set, which makes it clear that Sue just left. Bowie’s always been as much about choices as changes, and we hear morphed versions of his most familiar songs here, which mirror the mutations he always does in concert.
But they won’t be so unfamiliar to many; these are typically the versions released to those who aren’t necessarily buying the albums they came from; radio singles, club mixes. So while alien to the ears of hardcore fans, this is music (re)made with some marketplace in mind. It’s just that Bowie realizes that marketplace is now more literal — more people will hear his songs on in-store mixes and TV ads than on what “radio” is left, and the punched-up, cut-down versions are a strange kind of backwards avant-gardism.
The directional is not just figurative — the definitive version of Nothing has changed. starts with his new composition and travels in reverse, over three disks, to the first song he ever released (before he was even named Bowie). His crowning statement, The Next Day (from just The Last Year at this writing) is too fresh to need reassessment, though it is summarized agreeably here. This is “The Very Best,” not The Very Lost; I guess he won’t open the vaults all the way until after he’s in one, but there are some revelations you won’t recognize, including several languorous, lovely songs from the never-released 2001 Toy album and stuff that only ever appeared as online premiums or limited-edition bonus plastic.
His best song of the Aughts, “Isn’t It Evening,” stays lost (on a solo album by longtime accomplice Earl Slick), but the overlooked backbeat to 9/11-era New York, “New Killer Star,” gets a much-deserved second hearing; the best songs from Heathen, which weren’t technically on Heathen, like “Safe” and “When the Boys Come Marching Home,” stay buried on CD B-sides but some of the actual album’s cream still rises (like the astonishing reclamation of Petula Clark-era britpop “Everyone Says ‘Hi’”). Heavily second-guessed interpretations of tracks from ‘hours…’ and Earthling show those songs’ strong construction and resistance to tampering; faux-experimental follies like 1. Outside and Buddha of Suburbia don’t take up more than their share of space; the first two of those warrant deeper reconsideration (Bowie’s late-1990s cyber-folk on ‘hours…’ and plastic-drum & base on Earthling were infectious and ingenious expressive journalism of a cultural era, and even 1. Outside’s deliberate hit-and-miss struck some gems, like the not-here “Thru’ These Architects Eyes”).
The 1980s, of course, can’t not outstay their welcome since they were infamously one of Bowie’s most prolific if least productive times; they take up Disk 2, after “Buddha” (1994) and the brilliant edge-disco of “Jump They Say” from the criminally overlooked Black Tie White Noise (1993) lead it off. This was a characteristically paradoxical period, highlighted by a handful of songs that stand with his best from albums that maybe shouldn’t have been made to begin with. Some of the vision is here (if, as we’ve gotten used to, snipped for old-time radio’s timeslots) — “Loving the Alien,” “Blue Jean,” “China Girl,” “Modern Love” — plus a lot of his adrift novelty singles and endless supply of movie themes (“Dancing in the Street,” “This Is Not America”), but not one-off resurrections like the exhilarating Cold War postmortem “Pretty Pink Rose” (maybe a rights issue with collaborator Adrian Belew?). “Underground” or “Magic Dance” are astonishing by their absence (especially since “Underground” is the rare example of a Bowie song that was much better in its single abbreviation) — how an artist of Bowie’s unerring cultural instincts (and, one presumes, sizable vanity) hasn’t noticed that everyone under 40 now views Labyrinth the way earlier generations of pop consumers saw The Wizard of Oz, I can’t figure out — unless my estimate of the vanity is
really off, and/or those songs can make a lot more money if he waits for the rumored movie sequel to be out.
But after all, while there’s a skim of his mid-career masterpiece Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), there’s not a sound from the brilliant Baal or the troubled Tin Machine, bookends of his expeditions to the experimental outlands at the beginning and end of his most commercial decade. And the museum-quality Berlin Trilogy gets one perfunctory hit apiece; the compilation’s elegant design has a priceless succession of double-portraits showing Bowie looking in mirrors throughout his many lives, and in his re-selected past as in his concert tours, he’s got many selves to choose between and at any given time some of his mirrors on the wall are not speaking to each other.
Bowie’s rarities phase in and out of available existence like Bigfoot sightings (the absent Tibet-benefit “Planet of Dreams,” anyone? The also-not-here “I Pray, Olé” from the limited-time Ryko Lodger reissue?). So even I’m not sure if the swooning romantic sax-driven Spiders from Mars studio-take of “All the Young Dudes” I know from a bootleg 45 I spent what should have been my subway-fare back home on as a teenager has ever shown up on an official release until now; in any case I’m happy to have it on this collection since even I don’t have a turntable in my car.
The jumpy edits can get unnerving to those familiar with the full versions, but familiarity is something the artist has never been content with for long. It’s satisfying when some tracks are allowed to stretch out as nature and the 1970s intended (like “Wild Is the Wind”), or are grand and lean like his compact, self-contained epics of the glam era — “Oh! You Pretty Things” for instance, which is also beautifully drifted back into “Changes” in the one sonic overlap of the whole collection. The rest is isolated bursts of brilliance. The lengthiest compilation before now, Sound + Vision from the end of the 1980s, did a better job of tracing the currents of his thought, but it had a twenty-years-shorter canvas to consider; Nothing has changed. is less about his character as an artist than the ways and moments in which he has connected with a mass public.
Sometimes he’s met them more than halfway and many other times he’s taken them farther along than they could’ve imagined. His inclusion of exuberant but underdeveloped early entries like “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and exhibitions of his youthful aspiration vaulting far above his ability (“Silly Boy Blue”) shows that the model of his creativity is not the often-repeated “chameleon,” but chrysalis — he absorbs and generates ideas and re-emerges in a new form that can encompass the times and his reactions to them.
The aching, charming, bitchy, ambitious hits from Space Oddity through Station to Station (“Golden Years,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Drive-In Saturday,” “Life on Mars?” to put it backwards, and lots more) could surely benefit from context but of course need no introduction. Then there are some more missing glimpses of doors he didn’t go through — like “Man in the Middle,” the anti-romantic master-portrait of self-consumed celebrity that just prefigured Ziggy; and the deeply buried trippy fairytales of his artworld outfit Feathers (some of whose songs or riffs, like “I Pray, Olé” much later, were reprocessed into more well-known official releases). It’s understandable that he’d edit out tonal anomalies like the (at the time very successful) “Laughing Gnome,” but the omission of the very mature, heartbreaking “London Boys” must be his future self sweetly not showing how advanced he was how soon, ’cuz he thinks he’d blow our minds.
By the time you get to “Liza Jane” (Davie Jones & the King Bees, 1964) you see a promising young man you’re lucky to have met, on a journey that never goes in the same direction and is worth starting over each time.