David Bowie: Loving the Alien (1983-1988)

Expanded Bowie box number four picks up at a crossroads in his discography.

David Bowie
Loving the Alien (1983-1988)
(Rhino)
Music: 3 out of 5 stars
Package: 4 out of 5 stars

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …” wrote Charles Dickens in the iconic opening sentence to A Tale Of Two Cities back in 1859. The same can be said of the titular six-year stretch of David Bowie’s career covered in this set.

Expanded Bowie box number four picks up at a crossroads in his discography. He left longtime American label RCA after the inventive and rewarding, if commercially disappointing “Berlin years,” (detailed in 2017’s A New Career in a New Town) for a new home at EMI. That contract, reportedly netting Bowie $17.5 million, seemed responsible for the singer-songwriter’s direction into one that delivered hits, something his albums of the previous six years were lacking. So it was out with veteran producer Tony Visconti and in with hot disco man Nile Rodgers to help these sessions yield music that would get Bowie back on the radio.

It succeeded … for a while. Until it didn’t.

The simplistically yet appropriately titled Let’s Dance became — and continues to be — Bowie’s biggest selling album of originals. It yielded those elusive hits he was aiming for with the top charting title track, “Modern Love” and to a lesser extent, a re-recording of “China Girl,” originally written for, and performed by, Iggy Pop. Having then obscure Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan along for the ride didn’t hurt, although it was a bigger boost to Vaughan than Bowie. Let’s Dance is the highlight of this 11- disc compilation which finds Bowie moving from that high point to some of his most unsatisfactory, misguided, uninspired and at times even embarrassing music (the ear-wincing Mick Jagger duet on “Dancing in the Streets,” anyone?).

The 1983 Let’s Dance tour makes its audio debut here. The 21-song double disc does an adequate job spotlighting many of Bowie’s finest and most popular tunes from “Space Oddity” to “Heroes” and of course “Let’s Dance,” even if the sound is thin. Unfortunately, the overwhelming triumph of Let’s Dance devolved into a creative and commercial downward slide for the next five years as he tried to duplicate it. That resulted in 1984’s lackluster Tonight and 1987’s even worse Never Let Me Down, often considered his poorest studio work. Some of the latter’s issues were blamed on a poor mix which is overhauled, somewhat, with a fresh 2018 re-mix. It’s an improvement but still doesn’t erase Bowie’s often lackadaisical performance, cluttered arrangements, substandard material and an overall lack of inspiration. Between the “big 80s sound,” garish playing, and even hideous cover art, this was clearly not Bowie at his best, something he later admitted, calling this period his “Phil Collins years.”

Two more discs of 1987’s Glass Spider tour with Peter Frampton on guitar document a successful jaunt where Bowie rescued some of the newer material in a flashy, elaborate, well received live show. A Dance platter of extended 12 mixes included here is for diehards only and the fourth volume of Re: Call collects another two platters of rarities, single edits, hard to find live tracks and the like. It’s a diverse, jumbled bag of wildly inconsistent quality that includes both a schlocky Muzak version of “Volare” and a sharp re-mix of this collection’s title track.

Bowie swung the needle in the opposite direction to get the bad taste out of his mouth from the self-imposed artistic limitations of these years. His 1989 shift to the raw, proto-grunge/metal-tinged Tin Machine found him temporarily abandoning his solo career and joining a band which, not surprisingly, he fronted.

But that’s for the next box.